Afghan army says rebels in captured villages are foreigners

The Afghan Defence Ministry claimed on Tuesday that most of the 400 Taliban who overran a district in the southern region were foreign fighters, while thousands of Afghan and NATO forces were preparing to retake the town.

Hundreds of Taliban militants overran several villages in the Arghanadab district in southern Kandahar province, posing a threat to Kandahar city which is located some 20 kilometres south of the district and is a strategic city that links the capital Kabul to the southern and western provinces of the country.

NATO-led Canadian forces and Afghan troops were preparing an offensive on Tuesday, while insurgents were planting mines and destroying bridges to stop it, sources said.

"Most of the 300 to 400 terrorists who have gathered around Arghanadab district are foreign fighters," the defence ministry said in a statement.

"Today the terrorists approached a police post in the area and through an interpreter asked the forces to surrender, but they encountered a tooth-breaking response by the forces," the statement said, adding that the incident indicated that most of the terrorist attacks in the country were coming from outside Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, NATO aircraft dropped leaflets on several villages in the Arghanadab district on Monday night warning the villagers to leave the region before the operation to push out the militants, Haji Gholam Farooq, a tribal leader in the district, said.

Farooq said thousands of local residents were already fleeing the district towards the city.

"The villagers are very worried about the possible airstrikes by the NATO forces," Farooq said.

Amid preparations for a likely massive operation in the area, US military forces, who operate independently from the NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement that they along with Afghan forces patrolled the district, but found no insurgents.

"While in the area, Coalition forces moved freely and met no resistance. Recent reports of militant control in the area appear to be unfounded," the statement said.

"The threat of militant activity still exists throughout the province, but the patrol found no indication that militants have overwhelming strength in the Arghanadab area," it added.

The US military statement differed from claims by NATO and Afghan forces who were preparing for a big operation in the area.

Thousands of Afghan army forces were rallying near the district to push the militants out of the area, Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi said.

"We are sending fresh troops from Kabul by planes to the area," Azimi said. "The number of army forces in the area reaches to thousands of soldiers."

Afghan and NATO forces also erected several checkpoints around the district, checking every passing vehicle in the region.

NATO General Carlos Branco confirmed that international forces were redeploying in the area.

Police in Kandahar said the insurgents were planting mines and destroying bridges to slow the government offensive.

Two militants were killed on Tuesday morning when the mine they were trying to plant on a roadside exploded prematurely, said Mohammad Noor, a police official.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousif Ahmadi said rebel fighters were ready to face the Afghan and NATO forces in the area.

"We see Afghan and Canadian forces flying over Kandahar city in a very panicky way, now they are trying to save Kandahar city," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa by phone from an undisclosed location.

"We are well-prepared for any operation. We have our guns and rockets on our shoulders and are waiting for them."

The latest development followed a rebel attack on Kandahar city's main prison late Friday which freed about 900 inmates, including 400 Taliban militants.

Ahmadi said that the Taliban prisoners had already joined the fighting groups in the region and "some of them are in Arghanadab district." reported dpa.

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