Black Watch digs in after daring swoop on Taleban's heartland

HUNDREDS of Scottish troops were consolidating their positions yesterday, following a daring airborne operation to seize a vital piece of territory in Helmand from the Taleban.

Around 350 soldiers from the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, swooped into Babaji, in central Helmand province, on a wave of Chinook helicopters, backed up by Apache gunships, American Black Hawks, Harrier jets and unmanned drones.

Officials said they overwhelmed Taleban fighters who tried to defend a series of key bridges into the district, as engineers worked through the night to build a chain of combat outposts for the Afghan security forces.

The regiment's commanding officer, Lieutenant Stephen Cartwright, said: "The Black Watch met some resistance but we were able to establish a firm foothold in the area."

The airborne assault began just before midnight on Friday. The initial wave of troops were reinforced by around 150 soldiers including a further company of Black Watch and Royal Engineers who drove in convoys of Viking armoured vehicles, along with soldiers from the Afghan National Army.

Afghan commanding officer General Ghulab Mahayudin Ghuri said:

"There was a Taleban commander with around 60 men, who was attacking police checkpoints. At least 25 of them were killed."

The farmland, just eight miles north of the British base at Lashkar Gah, has been largely beyond the reach of UK and Afghan forces until now. Babaji sits between Helmand's two main towns, but it was cut off from government control by irrigation canals, used to water its poppy fields.

Refugees from the fighting claimed at least two British vehicles were destroyed during the attack.

Mohammed Nabi said: "There were two vehicles on fire, and soldiers patrolling everywhere."

Colonel Nick Richardson said troops found more than 1.2 tons of poppy seeds, which are grown for opium and turned into heroin. They also seized bomb-making equipment and home-made explosives during house-to-house searches. He said the operation was only possible because of the US surge into southern Afghanistan, which he said would "change the balance" in Helmand.

Most of Britain's troops are confined to patrolling close to their bases while the Taleban enjoy freedom of movement across huge parts of the province.

"This operation has been achieved in many ways due to the arrival of extra US troops into the south of Helmand, which has provided Isaf (the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force] with a massive increase in capability," he said.

Although Britain has around 8,300 troops in Afghanistan, only 4,500 are based in Helmand. The Americans are expected to outnumber them by the end of the summer.

Helmand governor Gulab Mangal said yesterday that security for the August general elections was his top priority. Col Richardson added: "This operation is all part of the wider Isaf plan to deliver that."

The Black Watch are based in Kandahar as a region-wide reserve for Isaf.

The operation in Babaji, code-named Panther's Claw, follows similar operations close to Lashkar Gah designed to flush out Taleban fighters who tried to storm the city last year.

But until recently, a shortage of "boots on the ground" has made it impossible for either Nato or the Afghan security forces to hold ground.

"It was very easy to capture this area, but it will be much harder to hold it," Gen Ghuri said.

It is not yet clear how this operation will impact the Taleban's ability to operate. The Black Watch are expected to occupy the new outposts until the Afghan police are ready to take over.

In Lashkar Gah, police were last night guarding a culvert, less than 100 metres from the British HQ, where they had found a roadside bomb.

In Ghazni province, two civilians were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a convoy of international troops, while further north three charity workers were killed when their car hit a roadside bomb in Jowzjan province.

In Khowst, in the east, six people were also killed in two coordinated explosions in Khost.

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