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Taliban has 4,000 ready to fight NATO, militant commander says

Afghan policemen searched a passenger yesterday at a checkpoint in Helmand Province. Operation Achilles, comprising about 4,500 NATO and 1,000 Afghan troops, is focused on securing lawless regions of northern Helmand -- the world's biggest poppy-growing region. (AFP/Getty Images)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- A top Taliban commander said yesterday the group has 4,000 fighters bracing to rebuff NATO's largest-ever offensive in southern Afghanistan, now in its second day.

Suicide bombers are ready, land mines have been planted, and helicopters will be targeted, said Mullah Abdul Qassim, the top Taliban commander in Helmand Province.

NATO, meanwhile, announced the capture of a senior Taliban fighter who had eluded authorities by wearing a woman's burqa.

Mullah Mahmood, who is accused of helping Taliban fighters rig suicide bomb attacks, was seized by Afghan soldiers at a checkpoint near Kandahar, the alliance said.

Speaking by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location, Qassim said the Taliban has 8,000 to 9,000 fighters in Helmand Province, including about 4,000 in the north, where NATO launched its largest-ever offensive Tuesday. He said all the fighters were Afghan, denying reports of hundreds of foreign fighters in the region.

"All of them are well equipped and we have the weapons to target helicopters," Qassim said. "The Taliban are able to fight for 15 or 20 years against NATO and the Americans."

New mines have been planted, and suicide bombers -- a growing threat in Afghanistan -- are ready to attack, said Qassim, whose voice was recognized by an Associated Press reporter who has spoken with him before.

Operation Achilles, comprising about 4,500 NATO and 1,000 Afghan troops, is focused on securing lawless regions of northern Helmand -- the world's biggest poppy-growing region.

The offensive follows a mission last fall that wiped out hundreds of militants who fought in formation in neighboring Kandahar Province, prompting NATO spokesman Colonel Tom Collins to say this week the military would welcome a repeat of those tactics.

Qassim said the Taliban would adapt to conditions on the ground this time .

"The Taliban know traditional fighting," he said. "If we need to fight in a group, we will. If we need a suicide attack, we will do that. If we need ambushes and guerrilla fighting, we will do that."

Collins said yesterday that NATO was confident it would succeed in helping the government move into the region, though he said it would "take a while to get there."

"We've established a presence and in some areas it's a heavy presence, and we're trying to disrupt the Taliban's senior leadership in the area and try to separate them from trying to rally" the Taliban's locally recruited soldiers, said Collins.

One British soldier and four Taliban fighters were killed during operations on Tuesday. NATO said it had no updates on the fighting late yesterday.

Helmand is the world's largest poppy-growing region, and UN officials say the Taliban derives tens -- if not hundreds -- of millions of dollars from the crop. NATO also says the Taliban is deeply involved in the drug trade, though Qassim denied that, saying the Taliban had eradicated opium poppies when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

The Taliban leader said the militants control all of Helmand, and said the provincial governor hasn't been to the region in weeks, instead choosing to operate from Kabul, the capital.

"Every day we have been firing rockets at the British bases, but soldiers are not coming out," he said. "They're not fighting with us. We are ready, but they are staying inside."

Mahmood, the Taliban commander caught wearing the burqa, was trying to leave the Panjwayi area of Kandahar Province -- site of a large NATO battle last fall in which hundreds of Taliban fighters were killed.

"Alert [Afghan] soldiers at this checkpoint spotted the oddity and quickly arrested him," NATO said.

"The capture of this senior Taliban extremist is another indicator that a more normal life is returning to the Zhari and Panjwayi districts, and a testament to the great work the [Afghan Army ] is achieving," said Major General Ton van Loon, the southern commander of NATO-led troops.

In eastern Afghanistan, Afghan and US-led coalition forces yesterday arrested a suspected Al Qaeda bomb specialist and five other terror suspects .

The US-led coalition had information indicating that "a suspected terrorist" with strong ties to Al Qaeda and to a group that helped militants along Afghanistan's border region was inside an eastern Afghan compound near Jalalabad, it said.

"The suspected terrorist was a [bomb-making] expert and logistics officer for the Tora Bora front, which facilitates the movement of fighters from Pakistan to Afghanistan," the US military said. No shots were fired and no one was hurt during the raid.