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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
UK troops pull out of Afghan town
Troops boarding helicopter in Afghanistan (Picture: Corporal Ross Tilly)
A peace deal has been brokered by local elders
British troops have pulled out of an Afghan town which has been a centre of Taleban insurgency in recent months.

The change in tactics at Musa Qala, a district centre in southern Helmand province, follows a ceasefire brokered by tribal elders with Taleban fighters.

The elders will install their own police to maintain security in return for the Taleban also leaving the town.

Meanwhile, Nato says US-led forces have killed a Taleban commander and 15 other militants in Uruzgan province.

There is no fighting any more and calm has returned
Musa Qala resident Haji Sarfaraz

Nato said an American aircraft dropped three bombs on a compound in the Khod Valley, killing militants who it said had previously conducted ambush attacks on Afghan and Nato forces. It did not name the commander.

Hundreds of people have been killed, mainly in the south and east of Afghanistan, as violence has worsened between insurgents and Nato-led and Afghan forces this year.

'Seed of hope'

The area around Musa Qala has seen some of the most intense fighting over the summer.

Locator map showing Afghanistan

Of 29 British soldiers who have died in Helmand province over the past two months, eight were killed in Musa Qala.

The BBC's Alastair Leithead in Helmand province says the decision to deploy British soldiers to remote town centres to defend small government compounds has stretched resources.

He says soldiers have been besieged by determined and fearless Taleban fighters and commanders have been looking for a face-saving way to redeploy troops almost ever since they discovered an enemy stronger than they expected.

British military commanders are not using the term "ceasefire" in connection with the deal at Musa Qala.

But Lt Col Andy Price said the move was a "seed of hope" which the army would "like to build on".

"We certainly won't do anything in order to disrupt what we hope is an enduring Afghan solution. If it works we'll be very pleased," he said, in his role as UK taskforce spokesman.

He said it was hoped that similar deals could be made elsewhere.

Town 'in ruins'

The provincial police chief of Helmand, Gen Mohammad Nabi Malakhel, told the BBC the Afghan government's writ still ran in the Musa Qala area.

He pointed out that the district's police chief and administrative head were still in place and the Afghan flag was flying above government buildings in the district.

Gen Malakhel said Nato troops could be called back into the area within 30 minutes.

One resident of Musa Qala, Haji Sarfaraz, told the BBC's Pashto Service that life was now returning to normal there.

"There was no business activity before, everything was in ruins, the locals were fed up, some were forced to flee," he said.

"Now they are again being given the opportunity to get on with their business. There is no fighting any more and calm has returned." Our correspondent says the withdrawal of British troops is a "significant step".

But it remains to be seen if the elders are strong enough to maintain security in the town and whether the change in tactics represents a major breakthrough, he adds.

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