War in Afghanistan: Three-quarters of enemy's stronghold is now secured

BRITISH troops engaged in a massive offensive in southern Afghanistan have now secured about three-quarters of the former Taleban stronghold, a top commander revealed last night.

Soldiers from the Grenadier Guards Battle Group have fought their way into Nad-e-Ali in Helmand province, allowing the Afghan government to take control of the area.

Major General Nick Carter, the British commander of Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, hailed the major airlift involving 60 helicopters that started the offensive as "one of the most impressive pieces of aviation planning and execution" ever mounted.

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"The fact that there was not a single accident, the fact that none of the helicopters was damaged or anybody getting out of them was particularly damaged, was I think a remarkable achievement, and something I hope historians will write up in due course," he said. Speaking from Afghanistan, Maj Gen Carter also revealed that a Nato rocket strike that killed 12 Afghan civilians hit the correct target.

He told a briefing at the Ministry of Defence in London: "We know now that the missile arrived at the target that it was supposed to arrive at.

"It wasn't a rogue missile, there wasn't a technical fault in it."

Initial reports suggested the two US missiles from a high mobility artillery rocket system strayed 1,000 feet from their target to hit a house in the town of Marjah where Afghan civilians were sheltering.

The head of Britain's armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, described the incident as a "very serious setback" to Operation Moshtarak.

But Maj Gen Carter said the procedures for the missile strike had since been found to be "as they should be".

UK military spokesman Major General Gordon Messenger said it would be a "fair assumption" that some insurgents were killed in the strike that killed the 12 Afghan civilians.

Operation Moshtarak, which means "together" in the Dari language, involves about 15,000 UK, US and Afghan forces tackling Taleban strongholds in areas around Marjah and Nad-e-Ali.

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Maj Gen Carter said there had been "significant" resistance from "isolated groups" of insurgents, but said the major danger was posed by improvised explosive devices.

"They are sophisticated, they are networked and they are of a similar pattern to some of the things that have been found up in Sangin (in northern Helmand]," he said. "What has surprised us is the quantity.

"They have had a long time to prepare this and they have not been idle in terms of getting it right."

He said Marjah, where US Marines are fighting, was now about two-thirds clear but stressed that it would take several days to complete the operation.

He added: "In terms of the leadership on the ground, our sense is that they have been significantly dislocated.

"Certainly the nature of the resistance that both the US Marine Corps and the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces] have met in Marjah would indicate that that is the case.

"And that's also been the case in northern Nad-e-Ali."

Maj Gen Carter confirmed that Nato and Afghan forces have suffered four deaths – including one British soldier, from 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards – and a further 35 injuries so far in Operation Moshtarak.

He refused to confirm how many insurgents had been killed or detained, but said foreign fighters had been identified.

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