Battles near Taliban-held town intensify

( AP ) - Days after Taliban fighters overran Musa Qala a U.S. commander pledged that Western troops would take it back. Nine months later, the town is still Taliban territory, a symbol of the West's struggles to control the poppy-growing south.

But a string of recent battles around Musa Qala, won overwhelmingly by American Special Forces, signal a renewed U.S. focus on the symbolic Taliban stronghold.

An Afghan army commander said Sunday that U.S. and Afghan forces have taken over the area around the town and that Afghan commanders are holding talks with Musa Qala's tribal leaders to persuade them to expel the Arab, Chechen and Uzbek foreign fighters who roam its streets alongside the Taliban militants.

U.S. Special Forces soldiers accompanied by Afghan troops killed about 80 fighters during a six-hour battle outside Musa Qala on Saturday, the latest in a series of increasingly deadly engagements in Helmand province - the world's largest poppy-growing region and the front line of Afghanistan's bloodiest fighting this year.

There have been at least five major battles in the area since Sept. 1, including Saturday's fighting, and Special Forces troops have killed more than 250 militants, according to coalition statements.

"Musa Qala is part of the overall concept here, denying the Taliban the ability to control northern Helmand," said Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. "Our goal is to stop them from accomplishing that ... We're in Musa Qala and we're going to stay there."

The vast majority of Western forces in Helmand are British, though U.S. Special Forces troops are also active in the province.

Taliban militants overran Musa Qala on Feb. 1, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that handed over security responsibilities to Afghan elders.

Days after the Taliban takeover a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Tom Collins, said NATO and Afghan forces would take back the town "at a time and place that is most advantageous."

Lt. Col. Richard Eaton, a spokesman for British troops in Helmand, said that "nothing in Afghanistan is ever straightforward."

"You can't do everything simultaneously. That is not how a counterinsurgency works," Eaton said. "As (the commander of NATO's forces in Afghanistan) has said, we will deal with Musa Qala at a time of our choosing."

Eaton also did not rule out the possibility of future peace talks in the town, saying that the solutions to insurgencies are political.

Brig. Gen. Ghulam Muhiddin Ghori, a top Afghan army commander in Helmand, said the foreign fighters are running training camps near Musa Qala to teach militants how to carry out suicide and roadside bomb attacks. But he said no big military operations are being launched to overtake the town itself because of a fear of civilian casualties.

"Afghan and coalition forces have surrounded the Musa Qala district center. We have started negotiations with tribal leaders there to take over Musa Qala from the Taliban," Ghori told The Associated Press. "The tribal leaders are also worried about these Taliban because the foreign fighters - Arabs, Chechens, Baluchs and Uzbeks - they are in Musa Qala."

Violence in Afghanistan this year has been the deadliest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. More than 5,200 people have died this year due to the insurgency, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.

The latest Musa Qala battle began Saturday when Taliban insurgents attacked a combined U.S. coalition and Afghan patrol with rockets and gunfire, prompting the combined force to call in attack aircraft, resulting in "almost seven dozen Taliban fighters killed," the U.S.-led coalition said.

The coalition said four bombs were dropped on a trench line filled with fighters, resulting in most of the deaths. It said there were no immediate reports of civilian casualties.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, declined to talk about Musa Qala at a news conference in Kabul on Sunday. Speaking on a separate topic, he said it could take between 18 months and two years for Afghan units to be able to conduct major operations on their own.

Rodriguez said Afghan forces excel at small-unit tactics and coordinating with the Afghan people but still need to improve their command structure, the use of air power, their logistics support and medical capabilities.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force, meanwhile, said an investigation into allegations of civilian casualties in Wardak province on Oct. 22 found that no civilians had been killed. A provincial council member at the time said 12 civilians had been killed, but ISAF said the investigation found that the allegations were "without merit."

Separately, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to a taxi-stand in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's capital, killing one civilian and wounding six others, said provincial police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal.

The bomber was also killed in the blast. Andiwal could not say who was the target of the attack or whether the explosives on the body of the bomber went off prematurely.

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