Members of the ousted Taliban have gathered in Zabul province, in southeastern Afghanistan, local official Hajji Hashim said in Kandahar.

  

In recent months south and southeastern Afghanistan have witnessed attacks against US-led coalition and Afghan forces in the area as well as violence against aid workers and civilians.

  

"Yesterday more than a 100 armed Taliban from Arghandab, Khak Afghan and Daychopan gathered in the mountains of Mazin," Hashim, the town's deputy governor, said.

  

Hashim said he went to the governor of Zabul province in the capital Qalat to discuss the situation but was told "there's no big threat".

 

Vulnerable

  

However, there are only 70 or 80 troops guarding Mazin, making the town vulnerable to Taliban forces.

  

"If the Taliban attack us we can defend ourselves and call headquarters for support but we are not capable of attacking the Taliban," Hashim said.

  

The men responsible for the gathering are believed to be Mullah Qahar and Mullah Ghafar, well-known Taliban commanders in the region.

 

"If the Taliban attack us we can defend ourselves and call headquarters for support but we are not capable of attacking the Taliban"

Hajji Hashim,
official, Kandahar

"There's a lot of support for Taliban in these areas and the Americans are not patrolling in these districts, only in the cities," Hashim said.

  

Kandahar, about 110 km from the Mazim, was the birthplace and former stronghold of the Taliban, ousted in November 2001 by a US-led force.

  

There is still support in the area for the Taliban from the mainly Pashtun ethnic population, who feel excluded from the central government in Kabul.

 

Confirmation

 

Kandahar's deputy military commander Muhammad Khan also confirmed that more than 100 Taliban had gathered in the area.

  

"The Taliban have come to Mazin that's why we are suspicious about their armed movements," he said.

  

Daychopan has been the scene of several operations against Taliban fighters holed up in mountain caves - notably Operation Mountain Viper in August in which more than 200 of them were killed by the US-led forces.

 

A US military spokesman had little to say on the gathering in Zabul, which borders Kandahar province to the south and central Uruzgan province and is about 300 km southwest of capital Kabul.

  

"We welcome Taliban gathering together in large numbers, we can capture them, we can kill them," US Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty said.