NATO assault kills 136 suspected militants
SANGIN VALLEY, Afghanistan – British troops pushed into a Taliban stronghold awash with opium poppies Monday, drawing mortar and machine-gun fire, in the latest NATO drive to help the government take control of southern Afghanistan.As Operation Silicon got under way, the U.S. military reported killing 136 rebels during three days of clashes in the once-stable west, the deadliest fighting in the country since January.The operation in the southern province of Helmand and the bloodshed in the western province of Herat show how Taliban militants have been able to regroup in the five years since a U.S.-led invasion drove them from power.But it also shows how the growing number of foreign troops and Western-trained Afghan forces are confronting the militants in their rural heartlands.The British soldiers came under fire as they filtered among the mud-walled compounds and deep irrigation ditches of the militant-held lower Sangin Valley in Helmand. An Associated Press reporter saw the troops respond with artillery and fire from helicopter gunships.There were no immediate reports of casualties in what NATO said was the latest installment of Operation Achilles, its biggest-ever anti-Taliban maneuver, which began in March.However, the separate U.S.-led coalition forces said they killed 87 militants during a 14-hour engagement, including airstrikes on Taliban positions, in the Zerkoh Valley of Herat province on Sunday.Another 49 suspected Taliban were killed two days earlier by a combination of gunfire and an airstrike, it said. One U.S. soldier also died.The casualty figures could not be independently confirmed, although police said “a large number of people” had died in the fighting.The bloodshed enraged local residents. About 500 people gathered in front of the police station and government headquarters in the nearby town of Shindand on Monday, claiming the dead were civilians and chanting, “The Americans are killing us. We are innocent!” said district police chief Gen. Gul Aqa.Some of the protesters were armed and opened fire on the government offices, breaking windows, before the crowd dispersed.The fighting appeared to be the bloodiest in the west since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001. It was also the deadliest nationwide since NATO said it killed about 150 suspected Taliban crossing from Pakistan in January.Nearly 1,300 people, mostly militants, have died in violence so far this year, according to an AP count, based on figures from Western and Afghan officials.Alliance commanders say it is vital to secure Helmand, Afghanistan’s most volatile province, where a lack of local government, established Taliban sympathies and record opium production have hardened resistance to outsiders.The Sangin effort involves more than 3,000 troops – 1,100 British soldiers, 600 Americans and others from the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and Canada, as well as more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers, officials said.Before dawn, a column of armored vehicles brought several hundred British soldiers to the Sangin Valley, near the town of Gereshk and Afghanistan’s strategic ring road that links the cities of Kandahar and Herat.Some of the soldiers fanned out on foot, drawing fire from militants armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Others, accompanied by an AP reporter, inched through the overlooking hills in armored vehicles.British troops responded with mortars and artillery, and Apache helicopters aimed several short bursts of fire at targets on the ground.There were occasional explosions and plumes of smoke as the soldiers moved between the mud-walled compounds. They covered about three miles during the first 12 hours of the operation.A NATO statement said the operation “has already successfully destroyed several positions used by the Taliban extremists to launch harassing attacks.” It provided few other details.NATO’s top commander in the south, Maj. Gen. Ton van Loon, told a Pentagon video conference from Afghanistan Monday that the NATO forces “have now got firm control of Sangin itself and we’re trying to expand the area in which we have control over the coming days and maybe even a bit longer.”NATO officials say they are trying to eliminate die-hard Taliban guerrillas in order to keep the militants on the defensive.Even before Operation Silicon, Afghan troops and U.S. special forces had killed more than 150 suspected Taliban and foreign fighters in the Sangin area in the past three weeks, the coalition said in a statement Monday.The hope is the fighting will pave the way for the Afghan army to set up patrol bases to secure the valley and allow badly needed aid work to begin.The troops are turning a blind eye to the poppy crop, which supplies most of the world’s opium and heroin, for fear of antagonizing the many farmers who depend on it.