Taliban claim deaths of 50 road construction guards

Insurgents attack construction company operations in Helmand, killing at least 12 in fierce fighting.

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KANDAHAR // At least 12 people said to be private guards were killed in a Taliban attack in southern Afghanistan, officials and witnesses said today. Heavy gunbattles broke out between insurgents and guards working for a road construction company in Helmand province yesterday, said a provincial spokesman, Daud Ahmadi. A dozen bodies were evacuated today from Sangin district, where the fighting took place, and taken to a hospital in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, he said.

"We know that they were killed during yesterday's fighting with the Taliban. We don't know whether they are guards or workers," he said. The Taliban claimed involvement in yesterday's attack. Zabihullah Mujahed, a rebel spokesman, said by telephone: "We launched an attack on the road construction company along the Sangin and Gereshk road," referring to the region where authorities said the fighting took place.

"We took more than 30 checkposts along the road and killed more than 50 guards," Mujahed said, speaking from an undisclosed location. His claims could not be independently verified, and the Taliban are known to exaggerate the impact of their operations. Abdul Mohammad, an employee of the road construction company, said he accompanied the bodies to the hospital. He described the fighting as "fierce" and said at least another 20 bodies had been either left behind or removed from the battle scene.

"Yesterday the Taliban attacked us. We requested help from Afghan and foreign forces but no one helped. Lots of people were killed, I think more than 20 other bodies were left in the area or have been taken elsewhere," he said. He said the 12 bodies he evacuated with the help of colleagues were "security guards". His account was not confirmed by Mr Ahmadi, who said the incident was being investigated.

President Hamid Karzai issued a decree on Tuesday ordering the 52 private security contractors in Afghanistan to cease operations by the end of the year. The tight deadline and lack of government forces able to step into the breach has led to fears of a potential security crisis, with international organisations vulnerable and reconstruction projects and aid deliveries delayed. There are 141,000 Western, mostly US personnel based in the country fighting the insurgency.