Hundreds flee as battle looms in Afghan south

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Tue Jun 17, 2008 9:11am EDT

An Afghan family flee from the Arghandab district of Kandahar, south of Afghanistan, June 17, 2008. REUTERS/Ismail Sameem

An Afghan family flee from the Arghandab district of Kandahar, south of Afghanistan, June 17, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Ismail Sameem

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of families fled their homes in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday as foreign and Afghan forces prepare to drive out Taliban insurgents who have overrun several villages, officials and witnesses said.

About 600 Taliban insurgents took over several villages in Arghandab district in the south on Monday, days after they had freed hundreds of prisoners, including about 400 militants, after an attack on the main jail in Kandahar city.

"There are hundreds of them (Taliban) with sophisticated weapons. They have blown up several bridges and are planting mines everywhere," Mohammad Usman, a taxi driver who evacuated a family on Tuesday from the district, told reporters in Kandahar, the main city in the south.

A Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said the militants were eyeing Kandahar after Arghandab.

"After occupying Arghandab, the Taliban's next target will be Kandahar. But, we will not attack Kandahar with rockets and heavy mortars. We will hit specific targets in the city," Yousuf told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.

The Taliban emerged from religious schools on the Pakistani border in Kandahar in the early 1990s and began their takeover of the country from the province, where they still enjoy support.

Ahead of the operation, the defense ministry said hundreds of soldiers have been sent from Kabul to Kandahar and put the total number of Afghan forces on the ground at several thousand.

Afghan forces will spearhead the operation, which would be backed by ground and air support from NATO-led troops, it added, without giving further details.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council and a brother of President Hamid Karzai, said about 600 Taliban had positioned themselves in Arghandab district, which lies 20 km (12 miles) to the north of Kandahar city, one of Afghanistan's largest cities.

He did not know if the militants included the 400 set free in the jailbreak.

NATO and Afghan forces have deployed troops to seal off the area to drive the militants from the district, which has an estimated population of 150,000.

NATO troops have dropped leaflets by air warning people to leave the district, fleeing villagers said.

FULL CONTROL

Haji Agha Lalai, a member of Kandahar's provincial council, said 300 families had left and more were leaving their homes.

Witnesses said Afghan troops were stationed in many parts of Kandahar city, the birthplace of the Taliban who U.S.-led troops drove from power in 2001.

Since making a comeback in 2006, the Taliban have briefly taken some district headquarters and villages in the south and east, the militants' stronghold.

Ahmadi said the Taliban were in full control of Arghandab district where there were about 500 militants, including a large number of those who escaped from a prison in Kandahar.

The insurgents had taken control of eight villages in Arghandab, the defense ministry said in Kabul.

The capture of the villages is part of the latest show of power by the militants in Afghanistan, which is suffering its worst spell of violence since 2001.

The flareup comes despite the presence of more than 60,000 foreign forces under the command of the U.S. military and NATO, as well as about 150,000 Afghan forces.

Britain's Defense Secretary Des Browne told parliament on Monday the government would increase its force in Afghanistan by 230, taking the total number of British troops there to more than 8,000.

(Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by David Fogarty)

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