KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of families fled their homes in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday as Afghan and foreign forces prepared for an offensive to confront Taliban fighters who have overrun several villages.
About 600 Taliban insurgents took over the villages in Arghandab district on Monday, days after they freed hundreds of inmates following an attack on the main jail in Kandahar city.
Extra Afghan and NATO-led soldiers were sent to the area in a "show of force," Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Corbould, commander of the Canadian battle group within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told reporters.
"The movement of troops has taken place without significant incident thus far and it is clear that Kandahar city remains firmly under the control of the Afghan government," he said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said militants were eyeing Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban, who U.S.-led troops drove from power, which is 20 km (12 miles) south of Arghandab.
"After occupying Arghandab, the Taliban's next target will be Kandahar. But, we will not attack Kandahar with rockets and heavy mortars. We will hit specific targets in the city," Yousuf told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.
The insurgents had taken control of eight villages in Arghandab, the defense ministry said in Kabul.
Haji Agha Lalai, a member of Kandahar's provincial council, said 300 families had left and more were leaving.
NATO troops dropped leaflets from aircraft warning people to leave the district, fleeing villagers said.
Capture of the villages is part of the latest show of power by the militants in Afghanistan, which is suffering its worst spell of violence since 2001 when they were ousted from power.
"Having just returned from the Arghandab district centre I can tell you there were no obvious signs of insurgent activity," Corbould said, adding this did not mean there was no Taliban presence but that "they just do not appear to have the foothold they have apparently claimed."
"The insurgent claims, however, have intimidated some people in the region. This may have caused the local population to exaggerate accounts of insurgent activity."
Reports of militant activity filtered back to Kandahar.
"There are hundreds of them (Taliban) with sophisticated weapons. They have blown up several bridges and are planting mines everywhere," Mohammad Usman, a taxi driver who evacuated a family on Tuesday from the district, told reporters.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council and a brother of President Hamid Karzai, said about 600 Taliban had positioned themselves in Arghandab district.
Ahead of the operation, the defense ministry said hundreds of soldiers were sent from Kabul to Kandahar and Afghan forces on the ground numbered several thousand.
Afghan forces will spearhead the operation backed by ground and air support from the NATO-led force, it added.
In Ottawa, Canada's top soldier brushed off the escape, saying it would have no effect on Canadian military missions.
"Their (the Taliban's) operational security for that specific attack was obviously pretty good ... we'll learn some lessons from this," said Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier.
The Taliban emerged from religious schools on the Pakistani border in Kandahar in the early 1990s and began their takeover of the country from the province, where they enjoy support.
Since making a comeback in 2006, the Taliban have briefly taken some district headquarters and villages in the south and east, the militants' stronghold.
The latest flare-up comes despite the presence of more than 60,000 foreign troops under the command of the U.S. military and NATO, as well as about 150,000 Afghan soldiers.
Writing by Sayed Salahuddin, additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Rob Wilson