Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Canadian Troops Advance On Taliban

Canadian troops pushed deep into the warren of fields in Panjwai district Wednesday morning, hunting Taliban under bright moonlight after enduring hours of co-ordinated attacks by the insurgents. The soldiers crept forward on foot, into terrain so difficult that armoured vehicles could not advance for fear of getting stuck in the rutted fields, irrigation trenches and dry canals. It was the first major incursion by either side in the past 24 hours, in the continuing struggle for control of Panjwai district. Operation Medusa, launched four days ago to control the volatile region southwest of Kandahar city, has settled into a siege, with hundreds of Canadian troops and their allies encircling about 700 insurgents who fiercely defend their foothold near Afghanistan's second-largest city. U.S. forces taking part in the battle said Tuesday they had killed between 50 and 60 suspected Taliban militants. NATO and Afghan officials have said about 200 insurgents have so far died in the operation. Related to this articleThe Canadians were forced to cancel a major attack on Monday after a U.S. warplane mistakenly fired on a group of Canadian soldiers, killing one and injuring dozens. Canadian military police say they plan to probe the incident, and will work with American investigators to determine whether criminal charges are warranted. A board of inquiry will also be established as a fact-finding effort to determine whether any changes are needed to reduce the possibility of a similar incident in the future. The Taliban did not immediately rush to counterattack during the lull after the friendly-fire incident. By noon, the battlefield was baking under the hot sun, with nothing moving except the flames from the soldiers' garbage fires. The stillness broke around 1 p.m., when a white sedan carrying three men in traditional Afghan dress appeared on Highway 1, driving west, deep inside the Canadians' security cordon. The sedan was stopped by Canadian soldiers, who questioned the occupants about how they ended up driving along a road already blocked by other checkpoints. “Our guys became suspicious right off the bat,” said Major Geoff Abthorpe, commander of Bravo Company. “Then we found the gunpowder residue on their hands.” One of the men had fired a gun recently, according to a field test, while another had faint traces of gunpowder. The third was clean, but none of them could explain how they got inside the Canadian cordon. Soldiers have been hearing reports about Taliban trying to escape Panjwai district, and the three were taken for questioning at Patrol Base Wilson.A mobile phone belonging to one of the detainees started ringing during the initial questioning, Major Abthorpe said. A military interpreter answered the call, and discovered that he was talking with a senior Taliban commander. “At that point, all the gloves were off,” Major Abthorpe said. The questioning continued for three hours, before the detainees were transferred to Kandahar for further investigation. The Canadians are hopeful that one of the captured men is a high-level insurgent, but declined to identify him. The man's importance might be connected to the flurry of violence that followed his detention, Major Abthorpe said. “They've taken the fight to us,” he said. “We've seen a spike in activity after the heat of the day passed. It started a ripple effect, from west to east.” Around 3 p.m., a group of four Taliban soldiers emerged from a line of trees just south of a Canadian unit, fired wildly and disappeared. The Canadians flushed the attackers back toward them using a barrage of artillery fire, until the Taliban were trapped in the mud-walled compound. But even after an Apache attack helicopter hit the compound with rockets, Major Abthorpe said, a lone fighter still managed to stumble out and raise his AK-47 rifle toward Major Abthorpe's position. The 25-millimetre gun on his LAV-3 armoured vehicle destroyed the insurgent, he said. About an hour later, a volley of eight to 10 explosive rounds, perhaps mortars or rocket-propelled grenades, hit another Canadian vehicle farther west. Five soldiers suffered burns, shrapnel cuts and concussions, and a helicopter took them to Kandahar Air Field for treatment, but none of their injuries were considered life-threatening. Later in the evening, a plume of fire and smoke could be seen rising several storeys high as the battles apparently destroyed a school building. Red tracers zipped across the farmland, as Canadian M777 artillery continued its regular pounding of Panjwai. After a difficult start to the operation, with five Canadian deaths and dozens of injuries, the soldiers were excited about the prospects of Tuesday night's ground attack. “The guys are chomping at the bit,” said Captain Piers Pappin, a platoon commander.