Taliban seizes control of area in south Afghanistan

TACTICAL RETREAT: An Interior Minister official said the police had pulled out of the district `temporarily,' after rebels took control of government offices and weapons

AFP , KABUL

Wed, Jun 20, 2007 - Page 5

Afghan forces admitted yesterday that the Taliban had captured a district in mountainous southern Afghanistan in the latest upsurge of rebels strikes that have killed scores of people.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry announced that 10 civilians and up to 60 Taliban were killed in days of fighting in Uruzgan Province but rejected claims by locals that dozens more were killed in NATO bombing raids.

The insurgents said they captured mountainous Myanishen district in the Kandahar Province late on Monday.

The ministry said yesterday that police had left the area.

"It was a temporary tactical withdrawal," interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said. "We plan to retake the district by launching an operation."

He dismissed a claim by the Taliban that 10 policemen were killed.

Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said the police had fled into the mountains after being under siege for two days.

"Finally last night at 10pm we totally captured the district center," he said.

The rebels were in control of the district administration offices and had taken possession of government vehicles and weapons.

The insurgents -- waging a battle to reclaim Afghanistan, which was governed by the Taliban between 1996 and 2001 -- have overrun several district centers in the south and west but have usually been pushed out after a few days.

They have however have held for months Musa Qala district in Helmand Province, which adjoins Uruzgan and Kandahar, and are said to control several others in the area.

The captured district adjoins Chora in Uruzgan Province where local officials alleged on Monday that scores of civilians were killed in three days of fighting, including NATO bombardments, to dislodge a group of Taliban.

Bashary said yesterday 10 civilians and four policemen had been killed by the Taliban and "50 to 60 enemy elements" were also dead. He said claims that scores more civilians died in bombing raids were "not true."

Uruzgan provincial council chief Mawlawi Hamdullah said late on Monday accounts from the area suggested around 60 civilians may have been killed, most of them in bombing raids.

"We may be able in course of days to determine the exact number of dead and wounded. Now we can only talk about estimation," he said.

About 100 people were in a hospital in the provincial capital Tirin Kot but there were others wounded who were not able to leave Chora, he said, calling for helicopters to be sent to the district to airlift them out.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force said late on Monday it had no reports of civilian deaths but believed around 50 to 60 Taliban may have been killed.

"The fighting in Uruzgan still goes on," spokesman Major John Thomas said yesterday. "About civilians, there is nothing new since last night. But Taliban are mainly responsible for the civilian casualties."

Unrest linked to the Taliban insurgency has peaked in the past few days with the insurgents' deadliest attack in Kabul on Sunday killing 35 people, most of them police training instructors.

It was the fifth suicide bombing in three days. Most were aimed at foreign troops but killed more civilians, who are increasingly becoming victims in the fight for Afghanistan.