June 20, 2008

Afghans: Taliban Move Crushed — ‘There is No Crisis,’ Says NATO Official

By Noor Khan

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan - Afghan and NATO troops backed by warplanes drove Taliban militants from villages within striking distance of southern Afghanistan's main city on Thursday, killing 56 of them, Afghan officials said.

NATO said the 24-hour operation in Arghandab was a swift success that banished any threat to Kandahar and would help reassure Afghans appalled at the embarrassing mass escape of Taliban prisoners from a city jail last week.

Hundreds of families who fled the lush, orchard-strewn valley, which begins just 10 miles from the city, were told they could safely return, the alliance said.

But the declaration of victory was diminished by alliance officials who implied that Afghan authorities had handed the militants a propaganda coup by exaggerating the threat they posed.

"No large formation of insurgents were met or spotted. Only minor incidents occurred," alliance spokesman Maj. Gen. Carlos Branco said at a news conference. "The insurgents who were there were evidently not in the numbers or with the foothold that they have claimed."

In a statement telling villagers they could return, Branco said, "There is no crisis."

Afghan officials had said some 400 insurgents swept into Arghandab on Monday and seized 10 villages and encouraged residents to leave.

The specter of the Islamic militia retaking the city that served as its capital before U.S.-led forces ousted it in 2001 refocused attention on the militants' resurgence in the intervening six years.

Syed Mohammed, who sent two dozen relatives to Kandahar but stayed behind in the village of Thabien, said gunfights raged until about 2 a.m.

When he looked out his gate at dawn Thursday, Afghan soldiers shooed him back inside, but not before he saw about a half-dozen bodies - apparently dead militants - in the back of a truck.

"The soldiers were everywhere, even in my pomegranate orchard," Mohammed said.

Originally published by Noor Khan Associated Press .

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