NATO and Afghan army launched an operation on Wednesday to drive Taliban insurgents from villages on the outskirts of Kandahar city in the south , the defence ministry said, but gave no details.
NATO and Afghan forces had massed troops and beefed up air power in Kandahar this week, readying for a showdown with the hundreds of insurgents dug in on the city's northern outskirts.
Some 600 Taliban insurgents took over the villages in Arghandab district on Monday, days after freeing hundreds of inmates in a bold attack on the main jail in Kandahar city.
On Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said insurgents had set their sights on Kandahar itself, the movement's birthplace, which lies about 20 km (12 miles) from Arghandab.
Thousands of families have fled Arghandab since Monday.
Witnesses said checkpoints had been set up on many key roads leading into the city. They said reconnaissance flights headed for Arghandab could be heard for much of Tuesday night.
Several key roads leading to major government installations were blocked and a group of NATO soldiers stationed in Kandahar's sports stadium, witnesses said.
The defence ministry have flown in a battalion from Kabul to join Afghan troops and units from NATO's International Security Assistance Force ahead of the operation, Afghan officials say.
Captain Mike Finney, chief public affairs officer for ISAF in Kabul, said Canadian soldiers were backing the offensive.
Finney said no air support had been used so far in the operation and troops had yet to sight large numbers of Taliban fighters. "There have been only small engagements with a small number of insurgents so far," he said.
The defence ministry says that at least eight villages had been taken by the Taliban who, according to some escapees, had planted land mines to deter attempts to expel them.
The latest flare-up comes despite the presence in Afghanistan of more than 60,000 foreign troops under the command of the U.S. military and NATO, as well as about 150,000 Afghan soldiers.
Last Mod: 18 Haziran 2008, 17:08