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Taliban, Children Dead In NATO Operation

A NATO and Afghan operation to retake a Taliban-controlled town in southern Afghanistan has killed at least 12 Taliban fighters and two children, the Afghan Defense Ministry said Saturday.

In other violence in southern Afghanistan, a NATO soldier was killed and another wounded in an explosion Saturday, NATO's International Security Assistance Force said. ISAF did not give any further details about the nationalities of the casualties or the exact location of the incident.

Taliban militants overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that gave security responsibilities to Afghan elders. Taliban fighters have been in control of the town ever since.

A string of battles around Musa Qala in recent months have signaled a renewed focus by U.S. forces to take on the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan's poppy-growing south. Saturday's violence is the latest in a series of deadly engagements in Helmand province - the world's largest poppy-growing region and the front line of Afghanistan's bloodiest fighting this year.

Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said elders in the area had asked the Taliban to leave, but when they refused, the elders sought help from government troops.

"For some period of time, Musa Qala has become a base for terrorists. Hundreds of foreign terrorists have gathered there," he said.

Twelve Taliban have been killed in fighting since the operation began Friday afternoon. Separately, two children were killed when security forces clashed with Taliban traveling in a convoy with civilians, Azimi said.

"The enemy always tries to use human shields ... and our demand from them is that they stop putting civilian lives in danger," said Azimi.

The Afghan and NATO troops conducting the operation were positioned to the east, west and south of it, he said.

Next to Musa Qala, in Sangin district, Taliban militants hanged a 12-year-old boy in an orchard, allegedly because the boy gave information to the Afghan government and international forces, said the provincial police chief, Mohammad Hussein Andiwal.

U.S.-led coalition forces, meanwhile, conducted air strikes in an operation targeting a Taliban commander believed to be responsible for attacks against security forces and involvement in weapons and drug trafficking, the coalition said. The U.S.-led forces bombarded the compound where he was hiding with several militants Friday in Musa Qala district.

The building was destroyed and "several militants" were killed, it said. "Multiple secondary explosions were also reported, indicating the presence of a sizable weapons cache."

As NATO and Afghan forces closed in on Musa Qala town, residents said many villagers remained in their homes as the area was bombed and were refusing to shelter insurgents

"If we let the Taliban in, NATO will bomb our homes. We're trying our best not to let the Taliban into our homes," said Musa Jan, a resident of Musa Qala district.

Jan said NATO and Afghan security forces had dropped fliers from helicopters telling villagers: "Don't go outside your home. We want to bring peace to Musa Qala."

Taliban commander Mullah Ahmadullah told The Associated Press by telephone that insurgents were strengthening their positions in Musa Qala and militants in nearby districts were pouring into the area for the battle.

"The morale of the Taliban is high. We will fight against NATO and Afghan forces. We will not lay down our weapons. We will fight until the death," Ahmadullah said as he commanded militants to take their positions.

However, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the Taliban would retreat if there were too many casualties among insurgents and civilians.

Situated north of Helmand, Musa Qala and the region around it have seen the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan this year. It also is in the middle of the country's opium poppy-growing belt.

This year has been the deadliest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. More than 6,200 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence, according to an AP tally of figures from Western and Afghan officials.

In other violence, Taliban militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns ambushed a district chief's vehicle in western Farah province, killing him, his son, nephew and three bodyguards, said provincial police chief Gen. Khailbuz Sherzoi.

Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.
By Noor Khan

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