June 19, 2008

Residents Flee Area Despite U.S. Denials

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan - Taliban fighters destroyed bridges and planted mines after overrunning villages outside southern Afghanistan's largest city, Afghan officials and witnesses said. Hundreds of farm families fled while the Afghan army rushed in troops.

Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense said Tuesday that between 300 and 400 militants - many of them foreigners - took over the Arghandab region 10 miles northwest of Kandahar. Monday's offensive came three days after a Taliban attack on Kandahar's prison that freed 400 insurgents.

Afghan officials, fearing a major battle, told residents to leave the area.

The Taliban have long sought to control Arghandab and the good fighting positions its pomegranate and grape groves offer. With control cemented, militants could cross the flat plains to make probing attacks into Kandahar, in possible preparation for an assault on their former stronghold.

However, NATO's International Security Assis-tance Force and the U.S.-led coalition offered a strikingly different picture of the Arghandab region. The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement that it had sent a patrol through Arghandab that met no resistance.

"Recent reports of militant control in the area appear to be unfounded," the statement said.

Coalition spokesman Capt. Christopher Colster said troops patrolled for about five hours on the west side of the Arghandab River - where Afghan officials say the militants are - but didn't make any contact with insurgents. The troops also didn't report seeing fleeing civilians, he said.

"In talking to our folks, they do not have any imminent concern that Kandahar is about to fall to the Taliban," U.S. Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said in Washington.

NATO aircraft dropped leaflets in Arghandab telling residents to stay in their homes - even though the Afghan Defense Ministry was telling them to leave.

"Keep your families safe. When there is fighting near your home, stay inside," NATO spokesman Mark Laity quoted the leaflet as saying.

Despite that message, more than 700 families fled Arghandab, said Sardar Mohammad, a police officer at a checkpoint on the east side of the Arghandab River. On the west side of the river, hundreds of Taliban controlled about nine or 10 villages, Mr. Mohammad said.

The Ministry of Defense - which rushed in about 700 Afghan soldiers - said insurgents got close to a police checkpoint in Arghandab and asked the police to "join them." The ministry said the fact the militants had to use a translator shows foreign fighters were behind the assault.

Originally published by Associated Press.

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