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Taliban gain ground near Kandahar

The Taliban have seized several villages northwest of the Afghan city of Kandahar, less than a week after freeing prisoners in a daring raid. NATO-backed forces continue to battle them in a major offensive. (Report by C. Billet from Kabul).

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, June 18 (Reuters) - The infiltration
of hundreds of Taliban militants this week into an area close to
Afghanistan's second city was a tactical success for them and a
setback for NATO, a NATO general said on Wednesday.


Some 800 Afghan government troops, backed by hundreds of
mainly Canadian NATO soldiers, are fighting 200 to 400 Taliban
insurgents who seized seven villages in the Arghandab district,
just northwest of Kandahar, the regional base for NATO troops.
It is less than a week since the Taliban freed some 1,000
prisoners, including more than 300 of their comrades, from a
jail in the city after a suicide truck bomber rammed the main
gate.


"There are setbacks ... the prison breakout and the
Arghandab operation, and there will be setbacks in the future,"
Canadian Major-General Marc Lessard, commander of NATO forces in
southern Afghanistan, told Reuters in an interview.


"They've definitely managed to achieve some kind of tactical
success, there's no doubt there," he said.


Hundreds of villagers have fled Arghandab, an area of rich
fruit orchards crossed by a wide river bed which was relatively
peaceful until its tribal leader, Mullah Naqib, died from a
heart attack in October last year.


The Taliban then raided the area, largely under the control
of Mullah Naqib's young and inexperienced heir, forcing ISAF
troops to launch an operation to push the militants out.


On Monday, the Taliban came back.


"The insurgents infiltrated there and as far as we know they
intend staying there," said Lessard, speaking at his
headquarters.


"They are not moving out, and based on the few hours of
combat operations they are still fighting, so we will have to
clear the area. Are they really dug in? Are they really prepared
to stand and fight and die? We don't know, we'll definitely see
in a day or two."


Almost 1,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops have been
flown in from eastern Afghanistan for the operation, reinforcing
some 4,000 ANA soldiers based in Kandahar, Lessard said.


Afghan commanders planned the operation and led the attack,
with support from ISAF troops, aircraft and helicopter gunships.


There have so far been no casualties among the NATO-led
International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), but some Afghan
troops and Taliban militants have been killed, he said.


"It's a very deliberate operation, going well, very very
slowly, because we want to make sure ... we fully clear the
area, we don't leave any pockets behind," Lessard said. "How
long will it take? I really don't know. What's important is less
the time it will take (than to) ensure it's 100 percent clear."


ISAF commanders have repeatedly complained of not having
enough troops to fight the Taliban.


Canadian soldiers leading ISAF operations around Kandahar,
the former de facto Taliban capital, have suffered one of the
highest casualty rates among NATO forces fighting mainly to the
west of the city, and kept a lighter presence in Arghandab.


The second Taliban attack on Arghandab in eight months has
exposed a weakness on the flank of Kandahar that the Afghan
government and its NATO allies will have to fill.


"There will have to be a proper security framework there,"
said Lessard. "...one thing is quite clear -- it will not be the
status quo that it was a week ago ... I guess we've learned
lessons and we'll ensure they never come back again."

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