- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — Hundreds of Taliban militants overran a southern Afghan town that British troops left after a contentious peace agreement in October, destroying the government center and temporarily holding elders hostage, officials and residents said yesterday.

The assault, days after a Taliban commander was killed outside the town of Musa Qala, raises doubts about the future of the peace deal, which has been criticized by some Western officials as a NATO retreat in hostile Taliban territory.

Two residents of Musa Qala estimated that between 200 and 300 Taliban fighters had overtaken the town. They said the fighters took weapons from the police on Wednesday and destroyed the town’s government center late Thursday.

Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said an “unknown number” of militants had entered Musa Qala. He said late yesterday that no NATO-led forces were in the town.

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 center for clashes between British troops and resurgent Taliban militants, outside of government and NATO control.

Asadullah Wafa, the governor of Helmand province, said the militants destroyed part of the compound housing the district’s governor and police. “People have closed down the shops this morning and those living near the area have moved out of fear,” he said.

Mohammad Wali, a resident of Musa Qala who estimated that between 200 and 300 fighters were in town, said residents feared fighting between NATO and militants would resume. Raz Mohammad, another resident, said the Taliban had taken about 12 town elders hostage. Col. Collins said there were indications the elders were now safe.

Late last month, NATO said an air strike outside of Musa Qala destroyed a Taliban command post, killing a senior militant leader and a number of his deputies. NATO said the Jan. 25 air strike “was outside the area of the agreement” and did not violate it.

However, Mr. Wafa said the Taliban told a gathering of elders last week that they considered the air strike a violation, and it appeared the assault was in retaliation.

Violence in Afghanistan has risen sharply in the last year. About 4,000 people died in insurgency-related violence in 2006, according to a count by the Associated Press based on numbers from Afghan, NATO and U.S. officials.

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