Afghan troops battle Taliban for fifth day in west

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HERAT, Afghanistan, Nov 2 (Reuters) Afghan forces battled hundreds of Taliban fighters for a fifth day in the west of the country today for control of two districts, and the chief of a third fretted his region might soon fall.

The hardline Islamist Taliban relaunched their insurgency two years ago to topple the pro-Western Afghan government and eject the 50,000 foreign forces, pushing their operations northwards from the mainly Pashtun south where their support is strongest.

Western forces say the Taliban's recent greater reliance on suicide and roadside bomb attacks is a result of heavy casualties government-alled troops inflicted on the rebels in conventional clashes and the insurgents' inability to hold ground.

But two Taliban offensives this week are a direct challenge to that assertion.

Afghan forces, backed by NATO-led soldiers, were still battling to dislodge hundreds of Taliban fighters from the district of Gulistan in the western province of Farah today after the rebels overran the area on Monday.

The Taliban have briefly occupied a number of isolated district centres across the centre and south of the country in the last two years, but usually flee the area as soon as Afghan army and foreign troops arrive at the scene.

But as Afghan and foreign troops fought the insurgents around Gulistan this week, far from fleeing, the rebels gained more ground and captured the neighbouring district of Bakwa on Wednesday.

''Gulistan district is still controlled by the Taliban,'' Ikramuddin Yawar, the police chief for western Afghanistan, told Reuters. ''We want assistance from NATO to support us from the air.'' Canadian and Afghan troops in the main southern city of Kandahar said on Thursday they had defeated a Taliban offensive close to the city and forced the rebels to retreat.

But in the west, the chief of a district near Gulistan and Bakwa warned his area would also fall to the rebels unless foreign air power was brought into play.

''The Taliban are fighting Afghan forces in large numbers. We estimate there are about 700 Taliban in the attacking force with 50 4x4 vehicles in Bakwa and Gulistan districts,'' Maolavi Yahya, the district chief of neighbouring Delaram, told Reuters.

''We request NATO forces to support the Afghan troops from the air. I am warning that if foreign forces do not engage the Taliban from the air, Delaram district will fall into Taliban hands shortly,'' he said.

Although effective in breaking Taliban assaults, air strikes have also come under fire in Afghanistan for the frequency with which they reportedly cause civilian casualties.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said the insurgents planned to occupy the whole of Farah province and would not retreat.

Farah is a large, mostly desert, sparsely populated region bordering Iran to west and Helmand province to the southeast where the rebels have held one town since February and are engaged in almost daily battles with mostly British troops.

The police chief of Bakwa said his forces had made a tactical retreat from the district to avoid civilian casualties.

''There is a large number of foreign forces in the area and we are waiting to launch an attack to regain the districts,'' the police chief Hashim Khan said.

As the fighting drags on, frustration is growing among ordinary Afghans that their government and its Western backers have not provided security six years after Afghan and US-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for not handing over al Qaeda leaders in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

NATO commanders admit they have a limited window in which to defeat the Taliban and provide much-need development before the Afghan public turns against their presence and public opinion in the West, frustrated by growing casualties, calls for the troops to be withdrawn, handing victory to the insurgents.

REUTERS SZ SSC1354

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