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Feb 27, 10:22 AM EST

Afghan troops push Taliban from key southern district


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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghan forces on Friday routed the Taliban from a large swath of a key southern province that has long been an important insurgent stronghold, in their first major solo operation since international combat forces pulled out of the country, an American general and a senior Afghan police officer said.

The operation, which began Feb. 10, succeeded in clearing insurgents out of Sangin district in Helmand province, said Maj. Gen. Kurt Fuller, deputy chief of staff for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan.

The area has long been an important Taliban stronghold and a major poppy-producing region but on Friday, Afghan forces "secured Sangin and the whole district has been cleared," Fuller told The Associated Press.

Fuller said the Afghan forces ran into "four strong points that the Taliban just didn't want to give up and it took them a while" to seize those, including a school that had been booby-trapped with explosives.

The Taliban have had intermittent control of large parts of Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province since they were driven from power in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, after the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the United States.

The operation that secured Sangin also cleared the insurgents from large parts of the Helmand River valley, which has long supplied most of the world's heroin, through Taliban-financed poppy production.

Much of the Taliban presence in the region is meant to protect supply routes for drugs, which fund the insurgency, and arms. Taliban leaders are believed to be based over the border in Pakistan.

Fuller said that far from a previous reputation as incompetent, the Afghan security forces proved able to coordinate across all formats, including police, border police, special forces and intelligence.

Gen. Mohammad Salim Ahses, Afghanistan's national police chief, said the operation had moved north up the valley in the past two weeks, clearing Taliban fighters from Nad Ali and Garmser districts before reaching Sangin.

"Sangin district is secure and the operation has moved north toward Kajaki district," Ahses told the AP by telephone from Sangin.

He said 385 Taliban fighters had been killed, including 31 commanders. Fuller said casualties among government forces were lower than the enemy by "a factor of 10 to 1."

The Sangin operation coincides with Afghan government efforts to open negotiations with the Taliban leadership, and ahead of the insurgents' traditional spring offensive.

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Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this story.

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