NATO, Afghan Troops Battle Taliban

NATO troops and Afghan government forces are battling Taliban militants on the outskirts of the southern city of Kandahar. Taliban fighters seized villages in the Arghandab valley, just north of Kandahar earlier this week.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour in Afghanistan, the scene of a heated fight between the resurging Taliban and NATO and Afghan government soldiers. Taliban fighters have occupied several villages in recent days, all just outside the southern city of Kandahar. The fight follows a brazen prison raid on Friday in Kandahar that freed several hundred Taliban fighters.

NPR's Ivan Watson visited today's battlefield and filed this report.

IVAN WATSON: The push to dislodge several hundred Taliban fighters from the Arghandab valley begun early this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

WATSON: Attack helicopters and war planes roared over the dense pomegranate orchards and vineyards in the valley, located just 10 minutes' drive north of Kandahar. Afghan soldiers kept journalists away from the fighting at a checkpoint overlooking the valley. Sporadic explosions could be heard in the distance as Afghan army pickup trucks with mounted machine guns raced back and forth from the front.

WATSON: Shortly before noon, a column of Canadian armored personnel carriers rumbled through towards the command center, where Canadian officers oversaw the operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

WATSON: Less than 10 minutes later, an APC raced back with sirens blaring.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

WATSON: Then a Black Hawk helicopter with a red cross on its side landed nearby in a cloud of dust for what appeared to be a medical evacuation. This afternoon the governor of Kandahar told journalists two Afghan soldiers had been killed and three more wounded in a battle that he says left some 20 insurgents dead. He also said the combined NATO and Afghan force had succeeded in regaining control of four villages, while the Taliban continues to hold six more villages. Taliban spokesman have issued counter claims - that they killed 16 Afghan soldiers and destroyed several army trucks.

WATSON: The Arghandab valley is just one front in the long and deadly counterinsurgency campaign that's being fought across southern and eastern Afghanistan. At the sprawling NATO airbase in Kandahar, British flags flew at half-mast after four British soldiers were killed yesterday by a roadside bomb in turbulent Helman province. Among the dead was Britain's first female military casualty. And at a small chapel on Kandahar air base, American servicemen fired a 21 gun salute during a memorial service in honor of four U.S. Marines who were killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan's western Farah province on Saturday.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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NATO, Afghan Troops Move to Defend Kandahar

Afghan National Army soldiers ride on the back of a transport truck. i i

hide captionAfghan National Army soldiers ride on the back of a transport truck headed into the district of Arghandab, north of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Wednesday.

David Gilkey/NPR
Afghan National Army soldiers ride on the back of a transport truck.

Afghan National Army soldiers ride on the back of a transport truck headed into the district of Arghandab, north of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Wednesday.

David Gilkey/NPR
A boy prepares to throw a rock at a NATO military vehicle. i i

hide captionA boy prepares to throw a rock at a NATO military vehicle at a checkpoint entering Arghandab district.

David Gilkey/NPR
A boy prepares to throw a rock at a NATO military vehicle.

A boy prepares to throw a rock at a NATO military vehicle at a checkpoint entering Arghandab district.

David Gilkey/NPR
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint. i i

hide captionAn Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint as a man peeks out of the back of a truck leaving Arghandab district.

David Gilkey/NPR
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint.

An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint as a man peeks out of the back of a truck leaving Arghandab district.

David Gilkey/NPR

Apache helicopters and warplanes circled overhead, and sporadic explosions echoed in the distance as NATO and Afghan soldiers mounted an offensive into the densely packed fruit orchards of Arghandab district, less than 15 miles from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

On Monday, Taliban insurgents infiltrated and occupied at least a half-dozen villages in Arghandab. From there, Taliban spokesmen threatened to launch attacks against Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city.

Some 700 hundred Afghan soldiers were rushed in to protect Kandahar's northern suburbs on Tuesday. They arrived as thousands of Afghan villagers fled their homes in Arghandab, fearing an imminent battle.

On Wednesday, a constant stream of Afghan soldiers in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns roared back and forth from Arghandab. A column of Canadian armored personnel carriers also rumbled towards the river that bisects the valley. Afghan soldiers at a checkpoint prevented journalists from descending further into the district.

NATO announced it began joint Afghan-NATO patrols on the western bank of the river at 6 a.m. Wednesday. Several hours later, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council and brother to the Afghan president, announced 16 Taliban fighters and two Afghan army soldiers had been killed in clashes. A Taliban spokesman made a counter-claim in a phone interview with NPR, saying insurgents in Arghandab destroyed two Afghan National Police trucks and killed 16 Afghan security forces.

Meanwhile, the streets of Kandahar were largely deserted Wednesday morning, with the exception of Afghan police and soldiers, as well as NATO troops, who manned checkpoints at nearly every intersection.

Kandahar's residents were shocked last Friday, when Taliban insurgents temporarily seized control of a Kandahar neighborhood and mounted a daring raid against the city's main prison. Approximately 1,000 prisoners escaped after dozens of insurgents detonated a truck bomb and overwhelmed the prison's Afghan guards. Hundreds of Taliban fighters, including several notorious Taliban commanders, escaped in what may have been the world's largest jail break.

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