BRITISH forces captured the town of Sangin in northern Helmand province this weekend, lifting a two week long siege of the small British base there.
The operation was supported by Canadian and US forces, and was the largest combined operation between the three nations since the Korean war. It came as officials warned that Afghanistan is now facing a food crisis that could help fuel the Taleban insurgency.
The police chief for Helmand, Ghulan Nabi Malakhail, reported that 60 Taleban fighters were killed in Saturday's British attack.
A British military spokesman told The Scotsman that the figure was considerably lower, but said that reports had yet to be verified. Three British soldiers were reported wounded during the operation, including one shot through the shoulder. None is in a serious condition.
The assault began at dawn on Saturday with Apache helicopters using cannon fire to secure a landing area close to the town. This paved the way for 200 Paratroopers in Chinook helicopters.
Simultaneously, about 100 British troops who have been holed up under daily assault in the mud-brick police station in Sangin for two weeks staged a co-ordinated break out.
British troops had been cut off even from air support for days at a time. British military sources told The Scotsman that British troops said the place was "a hellhole" under almost continuous attack.
Captain Drew Gibson, a British military spokesman, said British forces had faced a "ridiculous number of contacts" with the Taleban. "We have had one or two firefights on quiet days and five or six on bad days," he said. The rebels attacked with mortars, rocket propelled grenades, heavy machine-gun fire and small arms.
Two British soldiers were killed during an attack on the base on the evening of Saturday, 1 July, as England were playing football against Portugal. One of those killed was Corporal Jabron Hashmi, the first British Muslim soldier to die in the war on terrorism.
The base was so isolated and Taleban fire so effective that even air supply was at times impossible and British troops were reportedly without resupply for five days last week and in danger of being over run as their ammunition dwindled.
There was no let up in the fighting across the south of the country yesterday. Thirty-five insurgents were reported to have been killed during operations in southern Helmand yesterday. Six Afghan soldiers also died in a roadside bombing near Herat in the west of the country, while a suicide bomber with a device strapped to his body killed four civilians and injured 23 others in the south-eastern town of Gardez.
Afghan officials also warned yesterday that the country was facing an imminent food crisis after a disastrous crop failure this spring. The effect has been compounded by the disruption caused by heavy fighting across the south.
"There is a deficit of 1.2 million tonnes this year regarding the cereal crop," an agriculture ministry official said yesterday, warning that 2.4 million Afghans face hunger this year.
The links between the growing strength of the insurgency and the economic malaise in the south are widely studied in Kabul. Well-funded Taleban insurgents pay wages of $400 a month and impoverished villagers interviewed by The Scotsman near Kandahar last month complained that the only sources of economic potential in the south were fighting for the Taleban and growing opium.
"It is very serious ... they can make use of it," one Afghan official said of the potential benefit for the Taleban from a food crisis.
British officials in the south have stressed the primary importance of redevelopment and aid work to the British strategy for winning popular support in areas where the Taleban has seized control. However, the level of violence has complicated that effort.