UK troops 'making progress' in new Afghan mission

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Media captionMaj Simon Ridgway says British forces are "making progress"

British forces are said to be consolidating their hold on ground seized in a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

Commanders said troops involved in Operation Tor Shezada had met only light resistance as they pushed forward into central Helmand province.

Insurgents are thought to make bombs and plan attacks from the area around the town of Saidabad.

The operation to push the Taliban from the area began before dawn on Friday.

Maj Simon Ridgway, 1 Lancs Battlegroup, said troops had "secured" the areas initially earmarked.

Operation Moshtarak

Hundreds of British and Afghan troops are being led by 1st Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment.

Others involved come from 21 Engineer Regiment, the Counter IED taskforce, 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) and the Afghan National Army.

Soldiers were dropped by helicopter near Saidabad as the operation began.

The troops are trying to clear the Taliban from an important stronghold in the Nad Ali district.

Saidabad is one of the areas that UK forces were unable to clear during Operation Moshtarak earlier this year.

As many as 180 insurgents are believed to use the town as a base.

For the second day since they landed, the troops, with Afghan support, have been moving steadily forward from their new base in two large farm compounds.

Meanwhile, a larger armoured ground assault is heading towards them from Nad Ali so that the Taliban who remain in Saidabad are surrounded.

Assessing the progress made in the operation, Maj Ridgway told BBC News: "We have secured the areas that we initially wanted to secure and we're now getting a much better understanding of the areas that we are now in.

"We are now engaging with the local people and we are making progress in clearing the insurgents from the area in Saidabad."

'Better understanding'

Maj Ridgway said there had been a "small number of sporadic small arms fire engagements on the troops on the ground but nothing that is really concerning us".

"We are now developing a much better understanding of what the insurgents are doing. We are not overly concerned or worried at this time," he said.

He said the aim was to deny the Taliban freedom of movement.

"What we need to do is to remove their ability to operate," he added.

"And the key thing is their access to weapons, to ammunition, to improvised explosive devices and by securing and dominating the area we reduce that freedom of movement for the insurgent."

Saidabad was where bombs were made, attacks planned and injured fighters treated, said the BBC's Ian Pannell.

The area was seeded with home-made bombs that killed and maimed soldiers and civilians, he added.

Our correspondent said: "The feeling among British troops is that although it has been quiet so far, the Taliban are feeling out British forces, trying to assess their strengths [and] their positions."

He said the challenge would be to persuade local people to "turn their back on the Taliban" and invest in the local government, national army and the Afghan police.

"That has proved to be a challenge across Helmand for British forces and also for other forces who are part of this Isaf mission in Afghanistan elsewhere because the Taliban, although their numbers are not great, are able to exert influence and intimidate people," he said.

He went on: "You only have to threaten one person in a village for everyone else in the village to know that has happened. That makes people reluctant to side with the government. That's the long-term challenge."

Lt Col James Carr-Smith, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said the operation - significantly smaller than previous operations in the area - had been "launched successfully" and was progressing to plan.

He added: "Operation Tor Shezada will continue the momentum generated by Operation Moshtarak earlier this year.

"Its aims are very much supported by local Afghans living in and around the area of Saidabad. They are keen that insurgents be removed so that they can live, work and travel there safely."

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Media captionThe BBC's Ian Pannell examines the aims of Operation Tor Shezada

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