Archive for Saturday, June 21, 2008

Villagers return to fight’s grim aftermath

June 21, 2008


— Corpses lay stinking in the shade of mulberry trees and in the ruins of a collapsed storehouse. Villagers rushed home to see if their livestock had died in the heat. Afghan soldiers placed red signs warning of bombs planted alongside the road.

With the battle in Arghandab valley apparently over, grim signs remained Friday of the fight government and NATO troops waged against Taliban militants who had crept within range of Afghanistan's second-largest city.

The grinding violence that has plagued the country for much of the past three decades persisted elsewhere Friday, with suicide attacks and a roadside bomb killing five civilians and two members of the U.S.-led coalition.

The advance of up to 400 militants on Arghandab early this week raised particular alarm, because it is considered a potential springboard for attacks on Kandahar, the Taliban's capital until U.S. bombs drove the Islamic militia from power in late 2001.

Hundreds of government and NATO troops launched their counter-strike Wednesday, and two days later the provincial governor escorted reporters through army checkpoints on the 10-mile route from Kandahar to witness the aftermath.

In the village of Manara, an Associated Press reporter counted 19 bodies, some of them missing limbs. Some were piled in a mud-brick storehouse, which was missing its roof. Others lay prone in an alleyway beside a tree-shaded stream.

Afghan and French soldiers pointed to a 3-foot-deep crater in a nearby field and to broken and scorched trees as evidence of an airstrike. There was no sign of a gunbattle, though residents of other villages reported hearing heavy fire.

NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco said the fighting was over by early Thursday. He said there had been only small ground skirmishes, though an alliance helicopter had returned fire against gunmen in one incident and warplanes carried out "very limited" airstrikes.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said 56 militants were killed in all. Two Afghan troops also died. However, Gov. Asadullah Khalid said Friday that militants were killed in about 10 locations, and that the death toll was over 100.

He said villagers reported some militants spoke the Pashto dialect of tribes from across the border in Pakistan, who are suspected of harboring Afghan insurgents as well as al-Qaida leaders and sending volunteers of their own.

"We want to tell the Taliban, especially the Pakistani Taliban, that if they come again they will get the same treatment," Khalid said.

NATO sent 600 reinforcements to back government troops confronting the militants, who Afghan officials said numbered some 400 and had seized 10 villages.

The alliance has played down the threat to Kandahar amid concern that the Afghan public, already dismayed over a mass Taliban jailbreak in Kandahar last week, would further lose faith in the central government. Western nations have also urged President Hamid Karzai's administration to get tougher on the corruption and drug trafficking undermining effort to stabilize the country.

Branco said the lone reported civilian casualty and the deployment of 1,100 Afghan troops within 24 hours were "very important" positives from the operation. "We understand people were frightened after the jailbreak," he said. The big NATO deployment was to "make sure everything would go right."

On Thursday, NATO declared Arghandab safe enough for some 700 families who had fled the fighting to return.


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