ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan – Taliban militants destroyed bridges and planted mines in several villages they control outside southern Afghanistan's largest city in apparent preparation for battle, residents and officials said Tuesday.
More than 700 families — meaning perhaps 4,000 people or more — had fled the Arghandab district 10 miles northwest of Kandahar city, said Sardar Mohammad, a police officer manning a checkpoint on the east side of the Arghandab River. Police on Tuesday stopped and searched every person passing on the road.
On the west side of the river, hundreds of Taliban controlled around nine or 10 villages, Mohammad said.
"Last night the people were afraid, and families on tractors, trucks and taxis fled the area," said Mohammad. "Small bridges inside the villages have been destroyed."
The Taliban have long sought to control Arghandab and the good fighting positions its pomegranate and grape groves offer. From there, militants can cross the countryside's flat plains on decent roads for probing attacks into Kandahar itself, in possible preparation for an assault on their former spiritual home.
The Afghan army, which flew four planeloads of soldiers to Kandahar Tuesday from the capital, Kabul, said 300 to 400 militants had gathered in Arghandab, many of them foreign fighters. The U.S.-led coalition, however, said it conducted a patrol through the region "and found no evidence that militants control the area."
"Recent reports of militant control in the area appear to be unfounded," the coalition said in a statement.
Nevertheless, NATO aircraft dropped leaflets in Arghandab telling residents to stay indoors, NATO spokesman Mark Laity said.
"Keep your families safe. When there is fighting near your home, stay inside while ANSF (Afghan security forces) defeat the enemies of Afghanistan," Laity quoted the leaflet as saying.
Laity said 700 Afghan army troops have moved from Kabul to Kandahar to deal with the Arghandab threat.
The Taliban assault Monday on the outskirts of Kandahar was the latest display of strength by the militants despite a record number of U.S. and NATO troops in the country.
The push into Arghandab district — a lush region filled with grape and pomegranate groves that the Soviet army could never conquer — came three days after a coordinated Taliban attack on Kandahar's prison that freed 400 insurgent fighters.
Police and army soldiers increased security throughout Kandahar and enforced a 10 p.m. curfew.
A Taliban commander named Mullah Ahmedullah called an Associated Press reporter on Tuesday and said that around 400 Taliban moved into Arghandab from Khakrez, one district to the north. He said some of the militants released in Friday's prison break had 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 hardline Taliban regime ousted from power in a 2001 U.S.-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 U.S. 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 finding successes that the international alliance can't counter.
Arghandab lies just northwest of Kandahar city, and a tribal leader from the region warned that the militants could use the cover from Arghandab's orchards to mount an attack on Kandahar itself. NATO officials dismiss the idea that the Taliban can mount an attack on Kandahar.
One of the thousands of Afghans fleeing Arghandab said Tuesday that families were being forced out just as grape groves needed harvesting, meaning financial ruin for thousands. Haji Ibrahim Khan said Taliban fighters were moving through several Arghandab villages with weapons on their shoulders, planting mines and destroying small bridges.
"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."
Two powerful anti-Taliban leaders from Arghandab have died in the last year, weakening the region's defenses. Mullah Naqib, the district's former leader, died of a heart attack in October. Taliban fighters moved into Arghandab en masse two weeks after his death but left within days after soldiers moved in.
A second leader, police commander Abdul Hakim Jan, died in a massive suicide bombing in Kandahar in February.
The assault Monday came one day after President Hamid Karzai angrily told a news conference that he would send Afghan troops into Pakistan to hunt down Taliban leaders in response to the militants that cross over into Afghanistan from Pakistan.