ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan - Taliban fighters destroyed bridges and planted mines after overrunning villages outside Kandahar, southern Afghanistan's largest city, Afghan officials and witnesses said. Hundreds of farm families fled while the Afghan Army rushed in troops.
Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense said yesterday that between 300 and 400 militants - many of them foreigners - took over the Arghandab region 10 miles northwest of Kandahar. But NATO disputed the account, saying its troops there saw no signs of a Taliban offensive.
Afghan officials, fearing a major battle, told residents to leave the area.
The Taliban have long sought to control Arghandab and the good fighting positions its pomegranate and grape groves offer. With control cemented, militants could cross the flat plains to make probing attacks into Kandahar, in possible preparation for an assault on their former stronghold.
The reported offensive on Monday occurred three days after a Taliban attack on Kandahar's prison that freed 400 insurgents.
However, NATO's International Security Assistance Force and the US-led coalition offered a strikingly different picture of the Arghandab region than the one portrayed by Afghan officials. The US-led coalition said in a statement that it had sent a patrol through Arghandab that met no resistance.
"Recent reports of militant control in the area appear to be unfounded," the statement said.
Coalition spokesman Captain Christopher Colster said troops patrolled for about five hours on the west side of the Arghandab River - where Afghan officials say the militants are - but didn't make any contact with insurgents. The troops also didn't report seeing fleeing civilians, he said.
"In talking to our folks they do not have any imminent concern that Kandahar is about to fall to the Taliban," US Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said in Washington.
NATO aircraft, meanwhile, dropped leaflets in Arghandab telling residents to stay in their homes - even though the Afghan Defense Ministry was telling them to leave.
"Keep your families safe. When there is fighting near your home, stay inside," NATO spokesman Mark Laity quoted the leaflet as saying.
Despite that message, more than 700 families - perhaps 4,000 people or more - fled Arghandab, said Sardar Mohammad, a police officer at a checkpoint on the east side of the Arghandab River.
On the west side of the river, hundreds of Taliban controlled about nine or 10 villages, Mohammad said.
"Last night the people were afraid, and families on tractors, trucks, and taxis fled the area," he said. "Small bridges inside the villages have been destroyed."
The Ministry of Defense - which rushed in some 700 Afghan soldiers - said insurgents got close to a police checkpoint in Arghandab and asked the police to "join them." The ministry said the fact the militants had to use a translator shows that foreign fighters were behind the assault.
Haji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member, said the militants were destroying bridges and planting mines in hopes of repelling attacks from Afghan and NATO forces.
"From a strategic military point of view, Arghandab is a very good place for the Taliban," he said. "Arghandab is close to Kandahar city, allowing the Taliban to launch ambushes and attacks more easily than any other place in the province. Secondly, it's covered with trees and gardens - they can easily hide from air strikes."
The Taliban assault outside Kandahar was the latest display of strength by the militants despite a record number of US and NATO troops in the country.
A Taliban commander, Mullah Ahmedullah, called an Associated Press reporter yesterday and said about 400 Taliban moved into Arghandab from the Khakrez district to the north. He said some militants released in Friday's prison break joined the assault.
"They told us, 'We want to fight until the death,' " Ahmedullah said. "We've occupied most of the area and it's a good place for fighting. Now we are waiting for the NATO and Afghan forces."
The Taliban regime ousted from power in a 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan regarded Kandahar as its main stronghold, and its insurgent supporters are most active in the volatile south of the country.
The United States and NATO have pleaded for additional troops over the last year and now have some 65,000 in the country. But the militants are still succeeding despite the efforts of the alliance.
One of the Afghans fleeing Arghandab said families were being forced out just as grapes need harvesting, meaning financial ruin for thousands. Haji Ibrahim Khan said Taliban fighters were moving through several Arghandab villages with weapons on their shoulders.
"They told us to leave the area within 24 hours because they want to fight foreign and Afghan troops," Khan said. "But within a week we should be harvesting, and we were expecting a good one. Now with this fighting we are deeply worried - the grapes are the only source of income we have."