Nato response

 

General David Richards, the outgoing British commander of the Nato-led international force (Isaf), said on Saturday the Taliban tactic of temporarily overrunning a town was not unique, and that Nato would be careful in planning its offensive to protect the "the lives and property of the people of Musa Qala".

 

"By their actions, the Taliban have ended over four months of peace in Musa Qala which, until now, had seen a return to normality"

Nato statement

Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Afghan defence minister, said the situation in Musa Qala was not clear.

 

Local elders, who were in charge of security as part of the October peace deal, may have already pushed the Taliban out of the town.

 

"If there is a need for an operation, there will be one," Wardak said.

 

Nato retreat

 

An alleged Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said the Taliban took over the town of Musa Qala in response to a number of Nato attacks on the fighters in the area, which he said violated the agreement.

 

The fighters' assault, days after a Taliban commander was killed outside the town, raises doubts about the future of the peace deal, which has been criticised by some Western officials as a Nato retreat in the face of Taliban attacks.

 

But Nato said that the Taliban were never part of the agreement.

 

"By their actions, the Taliban have ended over four months of peace in Musa Qala which, until now, had seen a return to normality with reconstruction and development getting under way," a statement said.

 

"It is very clear that the Taliban are acting against the wishes of the people of Musa Qala."

 

General Richards will be replaced on Sunday as
the commander of over 40,000 troops [EPA]

British General David Richards said: "Last year they [the Taliban] really did see that they had an opportunity to defeat Nato. As I've said, we foiled that attempt and much more.

 

"The Taliban do talk about a spring offensive," hesaid.

 

"I won't use that term because all they offer is more death, destruction and despair, against the vision of hope and growing prosperity of the government and the international community."

 

October deal

 

British forces are based in Helmand province but left Musa Qala in October after a peace agreement was signed between elders and the Helmand governor.

 

According to the deal, security was turned over to local leaders, while Nato forces were prevented from entering the town.

 

Some Western officials complained that the deal put the area, which had been a centre for clashes between British troops and resurgent Taliban fighters, outside of government and Nato control.

 

One resident said the Taliban had taken about 12 town elders hostage. Collins said there were indications the elders were now safe.

 

Air raid

 

Late last month, Nato said an air raid outside of Musa Qala destroyed a Taliban command post, killing a senior militant leader and a number of his deputies.

 

Nato said the January 25 air raid "was outside the area of the agreement" and did not violate it.

 

About 4,000 people died in conflict-related violence in 2006, according to a count based on numbers from Afghan, Nato and US officials.

 

US General Dan McNeil was set to replace General Richards on Sunday as the commander of more than 40,000 Nato-led troops in Afghanistan.

 

Military officials have said privately that the change of command will mark a new approach in dealing with resurgent Taliban fighters.