Page last updated at 16:19 GMT, Wednesday, 18 June 2008 17:19 UK

Anti-Taleban operation launched

An Afghan National Army soldier and a Canadian soldier stand guard at a checkpoint in Arghandab district (17/06/08)
There has been a build up of Nato and Afghan forces in Arghandab district

Nato and Afghan forces have launched an operation to drive Taleban insurgents from the outskirts of the southern city of Kandahar.

Troops backed by helicopter gunships are patrolling west of the Arghandab river, a Nato statement said.

There have been conflicting reports of casualties - but Nato said there had been "no major incidents so far".

Hundreds of people have fled their homes in Arghandab district fearing fighting between troops and militants.

Arghandab is close to Kandahar city, allowing the Taleban to launch ambushes
Haji Agha Lalai,
Provincial council member

Nato spokesman Mark Laity told AFP news agency that the number of troops involved was "substantial".

A spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry told the BBC that more than 20 Taleban fighters had been killed in an air strike close to Kandahar, but there has been no independent confirmation of this.

Nato had no details on any casualties and said there had been only "minor contacts" so far.

Jail break

The Afghan defence ministry said that around 300 to 400 militant fighters were operating in Arghandab district and had taken at least eight villages.

Afghan map

One Kandahar resident, Zahir Jaan, told the BBC: "Most of the roads have been closed, there are check posts everywhere, planes are flying and military convoys belonging to the Afghan and foreign forces are patrolling the city."

A Canadian military news release said officials patrolling through Arghandab over the past day had reported "no obvious signs of insurgent activity", but that did not mean the Taleban were not there.

On Friday about 350 Taleban fighters escaped with other inmates from a jail in Kandahar. Only a handful of prisoners have been recaptured.

The BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says it is not clear whether some of those militants are being targeted by the current offensive.


Nato tanks and helicopters in Arghandab district

Our correspondent adds that the jail raid was a major coup for the Taleban, which draws much of its support from the south of the country.

Meanwhile four British soldiers have been killed in southern Afghanistan, the British Ministry of Defence says.

They were taking part in an operation east of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province when their vehicle was caught in an explosion.

Nato said two more of its soldiers were killed in the eastern province of Paktika, while four Afghan border police were killed in a bomb blast near the eastern city of Khost.

Symbolic importance

Arghandab district lies about 5km (three miles) north of Kandahar city and is an important agricultural area.

It offers good fighting positions for Taleban militants with its vineyards and pomegranate orchards and numerous irrigation ditches.

Afghans carry their belongings on a tractor as they leave the Arghandab district (17/06/08)
Hundreds of civilians have been fleeing the district, abandoning their fields

Haji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member and head of the province's reconciliation commission, said the militants were destroying bridges and planting mines to repel Afghan and Nato forces.

"From a strategic military point of view, Arghandab is a very good place for the Taleban," Mr Lalai told the Associated Press.

"Arghandab is close to Kandahar city, allowing the Taleban to launch ambushes and attacks more easily than any other place in the province. Secondly, it's covered with trees and gardens - they can easily hide from air strikes," he added.

A Taleban spokesman, Qari Yousuf, told AFP that the militants were determined to stay in Arghandab.

"The fighting started today in the morning but they have not been able to take a metre of the land under our control," he said, from an unknown location.

Kandahar is one of the key battlegrounds of the current rebel insurgency against Afghanistan's government and troops from Nato and a US-led coalition.

President Hamid Karzai is from the city and it is also the birthplace of the Taleban.

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