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UK troops pull out of troubled Afghan district

At least 44 suspected Taliban rebels were also killed in heavy fighting across the country, officials said.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2006 19:54 IST

British troops pulled out of a troubled district in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday after reaching an agreement with tribal elders, while fighting across the country killed 44 suspected Taliban militants, officials said.

NATO, meanwhile, announced it was launching a new countrywide military operation with Afghan forces to maintain pressure on the Taliban over the fall and winter, and pave the way for long-promised development after the most bitter fighting in five years.

Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said the decision to withdraw the British troops from Helmand province's Musa Qala district follows an agreement with tribal elders and the provincial governor, and was supported by President Hamid Karzai.

"There has not been any contact with the Taliban and they are not involved in this," Laity said.

He said the troops were leaving because it had been 35 days since the last major clash. They would leave Afghan security forces in charge.

Musa Qala has been one of the most volatile regions of Helmand, where about 4,000 British troops who deployed to the province in the spring have met with stiffer resistance than expected from resurgent Taliban militants.

The British ministry said the pullout did not represent a setback, and British forces would retain a presence in nearby districts.

"If anything, it actually proves that there's been an improved security situation because we are able to hand over to Afghan police," said a spokeswoman at Britain's Ministry of Defence, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, heavy fighting continued Tuesday. A US-led coalition airstrike killed a suspected midlevel Taliban commander and up to 15 other militants in southern Uruzgan province.

Three 500-pound bombs were dropped early Tuesday on a compound in the Khod Valley in support of a NATO-led operation targeting a group of militants who had previously ambushed NATO and Afghan troops, an alliance statement said.

NATO did not name the suspected Taliban commander. Afghan army forces battled insurgents near the eastern border with Pakistan for nearly five hours, in a clash that left 24 suspected militants and one soldier dead, said Gen Mohammed Zair Azimi, the Defence Ministry spokesman.

The two sides fought with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns in the Barmal district of eastern Paktika province, Azimi said.

He said Afghan soldiers recovered the bodies of those killed and their weapons.

Five suspected insurgents were wounded but escaped, while three others were detained, Azimi said.

It was not immediately possible to independently confirm the death toll.

In another clash between police in Helmand's Garmser district killed four suspected Taliban, said Ghulam Muhiddin, the provincial governor's spokesman.

Police arrested six suspected militants following the clash, which also wounded one policeman, Muhiddin said.

In Kabul, Gen David Richards, the commander of the 31,000 NATO-led troops, announced the launch of Operation Eagle, but gave few details including how many NATO and Afghan forces would be involved and what areas of the country it would focus on.

Last week he warned that a majority of Afghans would likely switch their allegiance to the Taliban if their lives showed no visible improvements in the next six months.

"The underlying purpose of this integrated security operation is to allow and encourage much needed reconstruction and development to take place across Afghanistan," Richards said.

Also Tuesday, suspected Taliban militants destroyed an oil tanker transporting fuel for NATO-led peacekeepers and killed its driver in southern Kandahar province's Spin Boldak district, said Gen Abdul Raziq, a border police official.

First Published: Oct 17, 2006 14:50 IST