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Battle Looms For Afghan Town Captured By Taliban

February 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan and NATO forces are poised today to launch an assault on a southern Afghan town in a bid to recapture it from Taliban forces. Hundreds of Taliban fighters had seized control of Musa Qala on February 1, despite an agreement between Afghan and British forces and tribal elders that no armed forces would be allowed in the town.

No Deal

That deal with the tribal elders now appears dead, and a battle looms. Reports says between 200 to 300 Taliban forces are now in Musa Qala.

The town is located in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province, where efforts to establish government control have repeatedly been thwarted by Taliban militants and opium poppy farmers who see government antidrug cultivation programs as depriving them of their livelihood.

The Afghan government forces in the region are supported by British troops serving as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which has a United Nations mandate.

On February 1, the Taliban swept into Musa Qala and quickly disarmed police and burned down the local administrative building. The Taliban fighters also took village elders hostage and said the deal between the elders and the British and Afghan government forces was void after ISAF recently launched several attacks on suspected Taliban positions around, but not in, Musa Qala.

Fighting Imminent

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zamary Bashari said the deal not to fight in Musa Qala is now dead.

"When the attack took place on the district it meant that the agreement is broken and the agreement is not respected," he said. "We are taking the next decision, which is to restore a peaceful environment in which people can live their daily lives."

ISAF spokesman Colonel Tom Collins confirmed an assault by Afghan government and NATO forces was imminent. Collins said the situation in Musa Qala was unclear but it appeared the Taliban were "fortifying their positions" in the town in preparation for an attack.

Collins said there will be "a serious attack in the very near future" by NATO-Afghan government forces on Musa Qala. He gave no further details.

Residents Fleeing

Bashari gave no time frame for the attack either, saying only that Musa Qala would soon be freed from Taliban control.

"About the decision of the Afghan government and Interior Ministry on Musa Qala [district], I would like to say that God willing, very soon we are going to have a decision and plan about bringing security and a peaceful environment to that district, which we will announce later to you," he said.

There are conflicting reports that at least some of the tribal elders taken hostage are now free.

NATO and the Afghan government say they will take extra precautions to protect civilian lives in Musa Qala when the attack starts. Several hundred residents of the town and surrounding area have already left to avoid being near the scene of an impending battle.

(RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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