Page last updated at 12:50 GMT, Sunday, 4 January 2009

UK forces take key Taleban bases

Royal Marines in Afghanistan
Troops had to cope with muddy trenches during the offensive

British troops in Afghanistan captured four key Taleban strongholds after an 18-day offensive in Helmand Province, the Ministry of Defence has revealed.

Afghan and coalition forces joined 1,500 UK troops for the pre-Christmas operation around Nad-e-Ali, which cost the lives of five UK servicemen.

They fought knee-deep in mud during First World War-style trench battles.

It was one of the largest operations mounted by Royal Marines since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the MoD said.

Operation Sond Chara - Pashto for Red Dagger - was named after 3 Commando Brigade's shoulder badge.

It aimed to provide better security in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah following Taleban attacks in October and to pave the way for a forthcoming voter registration programme.

Troops have been revealing details of the gruelling offensive, which involved some marines trudging more than 60km through mud while fighting insurgents at close quarters.

Map showing Afghanistan

Capt Dave Glendenning, commander of the marines' artillery support team, said: "Almost every day we were involved in intense fire-fights ranging from rocket-propelled grenades and small arms 'shoot-and-scoots' to four-hour battles with the enemy forces as close as 30 metres."

Another soldier - a Lance Corporal, signaller with the 77th Armoured Engineer Squadron - described sleeping in mud during more than two weeks at Nad-e-Ali.

He said: "Some of the places we stayed in were a nightmare.

"(At times) we were exposed and moving ahead of our infantry protection. It felt like we were being watched and it was difficult to tell who the enemy was - it was pretty scary."

Around 100 Taleban fighters, including a senior commander, were killed during the operation, which culminated in a battle on Christmas Day.

'Sacrifice'

The commander of Task Force Helmand, Brig Gordon Messenger of the Royal Marines, described the offensive as "very successful".

He added: "It has not been without sacrifice, and we will forever remember the contribution of those who died."

Those killed during the offensive were Australian national Rifleman Stuart Nash, 21; Cpl Robert Deering, 33, from Solihull in the West Midlands; L/Cpl Ben Whatley, 20, of Tittleshall, Norfolk; and Marines Tony Evans, 20, from Sunderland, and Georgie Sparks, 19, from Epping.

The attack, which also involved Danish, Estonian and Afghan troops, began under cover of darkness on 7 December with an assault on insurgent positions in a village south of Nad-e-Ali.

The insurgents responded with 107mm rockets, but were forced to flee after being pounded with mortars, missiles and tank fire.

Royal Marines in Afghanistan

In a raid to the south of Lashkar Gah, troops also discovered a cache of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and drugs, including 400kg of opium with a street value of 2 million.

The offensive was put on hold from 8-10 December out of respect for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

But on December 11, Royal Marines from 42 Commando launched a ground and air assault on Nad-e-Ali, securing an area which had previously been a key insurgent base.

Over the following days, K Company - known as the Black Knights - waged battles in ditches and trenches to push back insurgents as Royal Engineers struggled to build patrol bases in terrain which had been turned into a sea of mud by heavy rain.

Meanwhile on 11 December, commandos backed by the 2nd Battalion The Princesses of Wales's Royal Regiment and soldiers from the Afghan National Army captured the town of Shin Kalay, west of Lashkar Gah.

The most ferocious fighting took place during the battle for Zarghun Kalay, north of Lashkar Gah, from 17-19 December.

Troops had "yomped" 60km through mud to get to the town before fighting a "canny and determined enemy" in 360-degree hand-to-hand combat, the Ministry of Defence said.

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