KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan security forces knew Taliban militants were planning an offensive near the southern city of Kandahar last week but were distracted by a mass prison break, a senior army officer said on Saturday.
The Taliban have seized the initiative around Kandahar in the past two weeks, freeing up to 400 comrades from the city jail, then occupying villages outside the town. Afghan and foreign troops have launched an offensive to drive them out.
The Taliban had been gathering in the outlying district of Khakrez, planning to move from there to Arghandab, an area of rich orchards just 20 km (12 miles) northwest of Kandahar city.
“We were planning to conduct an operation in Khakrez but unfortunately the incident that happened in the city changed all the programs,” Afghan army chief of operations Lieutenant General Shir Mohammad Karim told a news conference.
The incident he mentioned was one of the biggest jail breaks in modern history. A suicide truck bomber rammed the gates of Kandahar jail on June 13 and militants stormed the building, setting free up to 400 Taliban and about 700 criminals.
The Afghan army, stationed 30 km (50 miles) outside Kandahar, was told of the jail break an hour after it took place, Karim said.
“By the time we got there, there was no use controlling or taking over or searching the jail because the people had gone already,” he said.
Fearing a Taliban attack on Kandahar, the army began securing the city, abandoning plans to forestall the attack on Arghandab.
“Unfortunately,” said Karim, the jail break “was very successful for them. When we were busy … securing the city of Kandahar they made use of this opportunity and moved from Khakrez to Arghandab.”
On Wednesday, about 700 Afghan troops advanced across the Arghandab river under cover of a smokescreen provided by Canadian artillery and routed the Taliban’s resistance .
Afghan forces counted the bodies of 94 militants, Karim said, adding that about 70 percent of the insurgents were foreigners.
While the battle was an important victory for the Afghan army and its NATO backers, the Taliban scored a propaganda coup with the jail break and the ease with which it occupied several villages so close to Afghanistan’s second city.
The Afghan army is now carrying out clearance operations around Arghandab to flush out any militants hiding there.
Hundreds of villagers fled the area after NATO forces dropped leaflets warning of the impending offensive and Karim said that he hoped the villagers would return on Monday.