Sunday, 26 December 2010

Soldiers unveil rare war memento seized from Taliban in daring raid

From the Daily Record today:

Black Watch squaddies yesterday unveiled a rare battle flag captured from the Taliban during one of the biggest airborne assaults since World War II.

A soldier dodged a storm of machine gun and rocket fire to seize the war standard during a daring raid on an insurgent stronghold at the start of Operation Panther's Claw.

Military experts said the white flag was an "astonishing find" and a powerful symbol which Taliban fanatics would have fought to the death to defend.

The flag, which has religious script scribbled on it by hardened Taliban fighters, is now the centrepiece of the Black Watch's regimental museum in Perth.

Captain Ben Collis, of 3 Scots, the Black Watch, said the flag was taken when 430 troops swooped into the Luy Mandah bazaar in Babaji, central Helmand, on June 20 last year.

He said: "It was the opening move of Operation Panchai Palang - which translates as Panther's Claw - and marked the beginning of the Afghan and British armies' retaking of central Helmand from the Taliban.

"The operation was focused on providing security in the most populous area of Helmand, between the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and the town of Gereskh, before reconstruction and job creation schemes could begin.

"The battalion was to take part in three subsequent phases of the operation, which lasted for over a month in total. This Taliban flag was found flying in the bazaar.

"It was captured by Lieutenant Alex Phillips, commander of 5 Platoon, on the second day of that operation. Lieutenant Phillips was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in an earlier operation."

Other mementoes gifted to the museum from the battalion's recent tour of Afghanistan include blank mortar rounds fired at the repatriation ceremony of two fallen Black Watch soldiers, a pressure pad detonator from a deadly improvised explosive device and a personal mine extraction kit.

Afghanistan expert Dr Alex Marshall, of the Scottish Centre for War Studies at Glasgow University, said: "This flag is fascinating and a very unusual acquisition for the museum.

"The Taliban have a codex or book of strict rules on how to treat civilians and how to live. These are sometimes found but I have never heard of a flag being seized before.

"It would not be carried into battle but used as a marker to signify a Taliban stronghold or headquarters. Symbolically, it is very important and shows how the Taliban are trying to establish a shadow state.

"The flag would also be important religiously and to have it flying over an area would be a real two-fingered gesture towards the Kabul government.

"The Taliban would only have let this flag fall into British hands as a matter of last resort and if they were taken by surprise by overwhelming forces."

The Black Watch museum at Balhousie Castle features items from their formation in 1725 - when General Wade, leader of the King's Army in Scotland, set up six companies of the Highland "Watch" dressed in the unit's tartan - to modern-day wars.

Museum manager Emma Halford-Forbes said: "It was fantastic to get the Taliban flag, which is very rare, and other items from the battalion's recent deployment in Afghanistan.

"We are always very grateful for all items received from serving soldiers. They are mementoes from momentous times in people's lives and help bring to life the history of the battalion.

"They help to allow people to relate to what is happening in modern conflicts and the sacrifices of modern soldiers.

"A lot of young children will be fascinated by the displays from Afghanistan. These items may seem commonplace to people using them on a day-to-day basis but they have a huge sentimental value and provenance.

"They also help the museum to preserve the history of the Black Watch for future generations.

"In recent years we have been very lucky to receive many interesting items from conflicts to add to our collection.

"These include an Iraqi AK47 and a box of rations from Iraq in 2003."

Other items in the museum's collection include a German Luger pistol from World War I, a book of pressed flowers from Jerusalem belonging to a Black Watch soldier wounded at Ypres in 1917 and German and Japanese flags from World War Two.

White Flag When Taliban warlords seized power in Kabul in 1996 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the white flag became the national flag of the country. It symbolises the alleged purity of their Islamic faith and government.

After 1997, the Taliban added the Shahadah - the declaration that there is no god but Allah and the prophet Muhammad is his messenger - to the flag.

Pressure Pad This boobytrap was donated to the museum to show the deadly array of weapons they faced in Afghanistan. Taliban fighters made the pressure pad as part of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) designed to evade detection and kill British soldiers. The device has two metal sections that make an electric circuit when pressure is applied, triggering a nearby bomb.

Bunker Buster This rocket launcher was also gifted to the museum. The bazooka-style weapon was used by troops to destroy compounds and fortified positions.

The High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) Warhead Launcher was fired from the shoulder. It was very effective against Taliban using thick compound walls to snipe at British soldiers.

Troops to cross paths

Scots troops will cross paths as they leave and arrive in Afghanistan in Spring.

Soldiers of 2 Scots, The Royal Highland Fusiliers, and 5 Scots, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, are due home in April.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Royal Marines from 45 Commando in Arbroath will go over to the Nad-e-Ali district at the same time.

They will join 4 Scots, the Highlanders, 100 soldiers of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and TA troops from the 6th and 7th battalions to train Afghan forces.

Around 120 personnel from RAF Lossiemouth's 617 Squadron will also carry out patrols from a base at Kandahar Air Field.

Some 200 from RAF Leuchars will provide security for a main Nato air base.

Following a training period in Kenya this year, soldiers of 3 Scots, the Black Watch, are due to go to Afghanistan in around a year's time.

Troops from 1 Scots, the Royal Scots Borderers, arrived back from Afghanistan in October. They were deployed to shovel snow on the streets of Edinburgh in early December and were officially stood down for Christmas on December 17.

In October 400 troops from 1 Scots marched down Edinburgh's Royal Mile as part of their homecoming parade. Army chiefs are planning similar parades for soldiers coming back in 2011.

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