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Afghanistan: Hundreds Flee Fighting In Helmand


AFGHANISTAN: Hundreds flee fighting in Helmand Province

Hundreds of people have left their homes in Musa Qala District, Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, after Afghan and international forces intensified their joint military operations to drive Taliban insurgents out of the district, according to local residents and provincial officials.

"Hundreds of startled locals have fled to nearby Sangeen and Garamsir districts," said Ahmad Shah, a resident of Musa Qala.

"Some people have also taken their families to Lashkargah [the provincial capital of Helmand]," another local resident said.

Provincial officials told IRIN hundreds of Musa Qala residents had fled their homes fearing fighting, but they declined to be identified.

The Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) has sent teams to Musa Qala and nearby areas to do a rapid assessment of displaced persons and their urgent needs, provincial president of ARCS, Haji Ghulam Mohammad, told IRIN in Lashkargah on 6 December.

Musa Qala District, which is about 165km north of Lashkargah, has an estimated population of around 50,000 people mostly involved in poppy cultivation or the poppy trade. Helmand is responsible for nearly half the country's poppy production - see www.swisspeace.org, Fast Update no. 4 Afghanistan Aug/Sep 07.

Taliban insurgents took over Musa Qala in February 2007 and imposed strict rules there, including a ban on women working or getting an education.

ISAF trying to retake Mula Qasa

Afghan, British, Danish, US and Estonian forces are involved in a comprehensive military operation - ground and aerial - in Musa Qala District which is expected to last for the coming two weeks, said Lt Charles Eaton, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Helmand Province.

The military operation aims to expel Taliban fighters from Musa Qala District and restore Afghan government authority there, Eaton told IRIN on the phone.

During an aerial strike on 2 December a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Ikhlas, and three other militants were reportedly killed in Musa Qala District, US forces said in a press release on 5 December.

Mullah Ikhlas was "responsible for the March 5 kidnapping of Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, his interpreter and his driver," read the press release. No civilian casualty has been reported as a result of the ongoing military operation.

Over 16,000 displaced

There are at least 16,000 new and old displaced families living in several locations in Helmand Province, according to provincial officials of ARCS and the Department of Refugee and IDP (internally displaced persons) Affairs.

"Almost all IDPs live in a critical situation and do not have access to minimum services," said Abdul Satar Mazhari, head of refugee and IDP affairs in Helmand Province.

With winter imminent, shelter and food are increasingly becoming major needs of thousands of IDPs in the insurgency-torn province, aid agencies say.

UN and international aid NGOs do not have a presence in Helmand and its restive districts due to security restrictions.

However, some UN agencies have used local non-government organisations and government departments to deliver food and non-food aid to some of the most vulnerable and conflict-affected people in accessible parts of Afghanistan.

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