ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan: Afghan forces supported by Canadian NATO soldiers launched a “clean-up” operation Wednesday to drive out Taliban militants massed in villages near the southern city of Kandahar.
Minor clashes erupted with the insurgents in troubled Arghandab district, but there were no reports of casualties so far, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
An AFP reporter in the district saw Canadian NATO troops driving in armoured vehicles through the area, while two helicopters swooped very low overhead and dropped flares.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard from nearby villages. Only two of about 20 shops in the district centre were open and the rest were tightly shuttered.
Afghan army soldiers, their radios buzzing constantly, manned checkpoints and stopped the small number of motorbikes and vehicles on the move in the area, the reporter said.
Hundreds of Taliban swarmed into villages in Arghandab on Monday, according to Afghan officials, just days after more than 1,000 prisoners including rebels escaped from Kandahar's main prison following a suicide attack.
“Today at 8:00 in the morning the clean-up operation started in Arghandab district of Kandahar province,” Afghan defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said in a statement.
NATO said an operation led by Afghan troops and backed by Canadian soldiers was “under way” in the district, a lush region surrounded by pomegranate orchards and vineyards.
“As part of the overall operation in Kandahar, a specific operation in Arghandab was commenced this morning,” NATO spokesman Mark Laity told AFP.
The number of troops involved was “substantial”, he added.
“Because operations are ongoing we can only give limited details, but so far we've reports of only minor contacts and there are no reports of casualties,” Laity said.
Afghan officials said Tuesday there were some 400 rebels in the district who had blown up bridges and laid mines in preparation. A Taliban spokesmen said they included some prisoners from the Kandahar jailbreak.
But Laity said initial patrols had not shown large numbers of militants.
“We've not seen evidence of large numbers of Taliban despite patrols to the district centre yesterday. This dosn't mean that there are no insurgents but we've not seen a large number as claimed by Taliban,” he added.
A police officer on the ground who did not want to be named said sporadic clashes had already begun between Taliban and Afghan forces.
Earlier, provincial police chief Sayed Aqa Saqib said that authorities had announced a curfew from 11:00pm to 4:00am in Kandahar province, adding that it was related to Taliban activities in the area.
Despite the presence of about 70,000 international troops mainly operating under NATO, an insurgency aimed at toppling the US-backed government in Kabul has gained pace in the past two years.
The Taliban were toppled from government in late 2001 by a US-led invasion when the hardline regime refused to hand over Osama bin Laden in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
The suicide attack on Kandahar jail on Friday night came as a major blow to US-backed President Hamid Karzai, who is under pressure from international donors to improve security.
Karzai responded by saying Afghan forces would be justified in launching attacks on militants allegedly based in Pakistan, but his spokesman said on Tuesday that he had no intention of starting a war.