- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan | NATO forces in Afghanistan have seized about 50 Iranian-made rockets intended to aid the Taliban’s spring battle campaign, the most powerful illicit weapons ever intercepted en route from Iran, an intelligence official said Wednesday.

The shipment is seen as a serious escalation in Iran’s state support of the Taliban insurgency, the international intelligence official said. It is also an escalation in the proxy war Iran is waging against U.S. and other Western forces in Afghanistan, as Washington continues to lobby for tougher international sanctions against Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The intercepted 122-millimeter rockets can be fired up to 13 miles away from a target, and explode in a burst up to 80 feet wide - double that of the previous 107 mm rockets provided by Iran to the Taliban since 2006, the official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.

The rockets were machined without Iranian markings or any serial numbers, but the official said their technical details match other Iranian models. So far, there is no evidence that the 122 mm rockets have been used in Afghanistan. The Taliban has sometimes used Chinese- and Russian-made rockets of the same range in the fight here, harvested from the multiple weapons caches throughout the country from Afghanistan’s decades of civil war.

NATO troops captured the rockets in a three-truck convoy Feb. 5 in southern Nimruz, near the Iranian and Pakistani borders.

In a separate development, a high-level Afghan Taliban leader traveled to Iran in the past two weeks to meet with a leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force to ask for more-powerful weapons to attack Afghan and NATO troops in the spring and summer fighting season, the official added.

He is believed to have asked for shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which Iran declined to deliver, the official said.

An intelligence tip led to the interception of the weapons. The logistics of the shipment were arranged by a Taliban “facilitator” in Iran, the intelligence official added.

The seizure follows more than a year of fierce NATO operations against Taliban terrorist networks, with the highest number of special forces raids in Afghanistan ever. The campaign targeted Taliban safe houses, weapons caches and bomb-building factories.

Since December, coalition forces have launched more than 1,600 operations and killed or captured about 350 Taliban leaders, NATO said Wednesday. They also captured more than 1,800 lower-level terrorists and killed an estimated 500. In that time, NATO raids found some 1,000 weapons caches, severely depleting the Taliban’s weapons supply.

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