KABUL (AFP) — A second NATO soldier was killed Sunday as Afghan and international troops advanced on Musa Qala in a major operation to remove Taliban rebels who seized the southern town 10 months ago, defence forces said.
Some of the thousands of soldiers involved in the operation launched Friday had come within two kilometres (one mile) of the town, progressing through the night and closing in from the north, the Afghan defence force said.
An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldier taking part in the campaign was killed and another injured when their vehicle hit a mine in the area, ISAF said.
The 38-nation alliance force did not give the soldiers' nationalities but a spokesman, Brigadier General Carlos Branco, said they were not from Britain, which is playing a key role as ISAF's lead nation in Helmand province.
A British soldier became the first international casualty when he was killed in a mine blast on Saturday.
ISAF said Sunday that its soldiers were moving cautiously because of the threat of booby-trap bombs planted by the militants.
The Afghan defence ministry said Saturday a dozen Taliban and two civilians had also been killed, and said Sunday there had been no change in the toll.
The Taliban overran Musa Qala in early February, breaking a controversial deal in which British forces pulled out on the request of elders who said they would handle security after months of intense fighting.
British Defence Secretary Des Browne was in Kabul Sunday for talks with his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahman Wardak, about the push for Musa Qala, the Afghan ministry said.
"This is an important operation, but the most important thing about it is that Afghan forces are leading," Browne said in a separate statement released from London.
"They are doing so with the assistance of international forces, including British forces. The Afghan government has long said that it would retake Musa Qala from the scourge of the Taliban when the time is right. The time is now right."
ISAF and its partner in a separate US-led coalition are helping to build up the Afghan security forces, which were in tatters when the Taliban government fell in 2001, so they can take charge of the country's fragile security.
Musa Qala has become a base for the Taliban, who were ousted in a US-led operation for harbouring Al-Qaeda leaders after the 9/11 attacks and now waging an intensifying insurgency that has this year left around 6,000 people dead.
A British military spokesman in Helmand, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton, said the operation would continue until the "door to Musa Qala was kicked in."
"And once the door is kicked in, the Afghan army will enter," he told AFP.
The Afghan defence ministry meanwhile warned the rebels to lay down their arms "or face waves of attacks." Two Taliban commanders in the area had been captured, it said.
Another rebel commander, Abdul Satar, said the movement's leaders had left after the launch of the operation. "But our mujahedin (fighters) are resisting," he said.
A separate Taliban leader has claimed there are up to 2,000 rebel fighters in the town but this could not be independently verified.
Clashes also erupted early Sunday outside the town, a resident who gave his name as Mahmood told AFP by telephone. "The Taliban resisted and there is no fighting at this time," he said.
In other fighting between the two sides, 10 Taliban were killed Saturday in the Panjwayi area of Kandahar province, the Afghan defence ministry said Sunday.
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