KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A top Taliban commander said Wednesday 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, Mullah Abdul Qassim, a top Taliban commander in Helmand province told The Associated Press.
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 north of that province, 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 a 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 Col. 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 around.
“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.”
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.”
One British soldier and four Taliban fighters were killed during operations on Tuesday. NATO said it had no updates on the fighting late Wednesday.
In eastern Afghanistan, Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces arrested a suspected al-Qaida bomb expert and five other terrorist suspects Wednesday.