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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 17:37 GMT 18:37 UK
On the frontline in Afghanistan
Soldiers in Afghanistan
Operation Palk aims to seize Taliban-held territory
British-led troops in the desert of southern Afghanistan are fighting a bitter war against Taleban insurgents.

BBC correspondent Jill McGivering was embedded with the troops on the frontline during their latest offensive, Operation Palk.

Through a tiny square of dirty window, all I can see are clouds of dust as we pitch and heave across the open desert. I'm crammed into the back of an armoured vehicle, heading for battle with seven British soldiers.

Fred is the most extrovert, the butt of endless jokes about his large appetite and weight. James is the most silent. He's only just 19.

Two weeks ago, he lost two friends in a roadside bomb. It made me realise, he says, what can really happen. He's riding with his head sticking out of the roof hatch, his gun trained.

As the vehicle crashes from side to side, his feet catch the shoulders, thighs and groins of the men below. All the lads are near the end of their six months here. The banter is full of thoughts of home.

Excitement and fear

The convoy stops in a natural desert hollow. The heat is already reaching 40 degrees. As the sun scorches the sand, the soldiers search out the strip of shade down the side of each vehicle.

They lie there, dozing or smoking, slapping at flies and waiting for the day to pass.

By late afternoon, they go into huddles, poring over satellite maps spread out on the sand, and tracing their plan of attack. The maps are so detailed they show every field, every ditch, every simple mud-brick house.

The battle group slowly assembles around us. Fighter planes roar overhead. At dusk, a majestic column of warrior tanks rumbles out of the desert, bristling with weapons.

They stand round us in a protective circle, silhouetted against the darkening sky. As the black night closes in, the mood is a mix of excitement and plain fear.

Soldiers in Afghanistan
Operation Palk Wahel means 'sledgehammer hit'

We lie in silence on the sand, gazing up at the stunningly beautiful canopy of stars. I listen to the gentle snoring round me, the howling of dogs. They've warned me to expect a lot of casualties. I think of the young men and wonder if any won't make it safely home.

At 3am we wake to the first bangs of explosion as the operation begins. We grope for body armour in the faint moonlight and crush together inside our tin can of a vehicle.

The ground they plan to seize is a sudden splash of green in the desert, irrigated by a canal. It's planted with fields of corn and poppy and mud-walled houses. It's also a Taleban stronghold.

I watch from the slope above as the vehicles, engineers and soldiers head quietly down. Jets and tanks open fire to give them cover. Once they've crossed the canal, the soldiers creep in single file through the fields, packs on their backs, guns at the ready.

Steady progress

I'm watching it all through binoculars, like a First World War general. I make out the shapes of Fred and James in the line.

Flashes of flame and rising smoke show where the jets are dropping 500lb bombs. The tanks fire shells - a display of power which lasts all day.

But for the soldiers, it's a return to old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat, as they inch their way forward, storming each house, compound by compound, with guns and grenades.

Reports come back that they're making steady progress, despite pockets of resistance. As many as 100 Taleban fighters have been killed.

The soldiers take control of a village deep in the fields. I follow them there and find a series of medieval mud-walled compounds, gathered on raised ground. There's an eerie quiet. The villagers have vanished. The soldiers are busy erecting mosquito nets, unpacking kit, digging a pit latrine.

News is emerging that a family of six civilians was killed here when a bomb landed on their house. I find the bodies freshly dug out, lying beside the rubble. Three adults and three small bodies of children.

Suffering

One wall of their home is still standing. A dusty handbag is suspended from a nail. A picture hangs crookedly. A tin trunk beneath is piled with family books, maps and an old photograph album.

The next day the British colonel calls an emergency meeting with the village elders. Thirteen men with wrinkled faces and turban-style head-dress appear from the desert and sit cross-legged in a circle on a shady verandah.

The colonel speaks solemnly and clearly. We are here to provide security, he says. The government of Afghanistan will bring reconstruction and development to your village.

The elders wait politely until he's finished. They gesture round the mud walls, the dirt roads. Their wives and children are hiding without shelter in the surrounding fields. We are suffering, they say.

You and the Taleban come here for your own purposes. They behead us. You bomb us. Their faces are bitter. What do you expect us to do?



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