Afghan and international forces have retaken a southern town held by Taliban insurgents since February, the Afghan Defence Ministry said Monday. The Taliban said it retreated from the town to avoid both its own and civilian casualties.

Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said Afghan, British and U.S. forces had "completely captured" Musa Qala, a town in the opium poppy growing belt of northern Helmand province.

He said fighting was continuing around the town.

Afghan and international troops have stepped up operations around Musa Qala since early November, and fighting in the area has intensified in the last several days as NATO and Afghan forces advanced on the town.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said the insurgents made a strategic decision to flee Musa Qala to avoid further destruction to the town.

"Because of the massive bombings this morning, the Taliban didn't want to cause more casualties, so this afternoon all the Taliban left Musa Qala," Ahmadi told the Associated Press by satellite phone.

Hundreds of Afghan soldiers

A resident of Musa Qala, Haji Mohammad Rauf, said he saw Taliban fighters leave the town in trucks and motorbikes around noon. Two hours later, hundreds of Afghan soldiers streamed into town and established security checkpoints, he said.

"I was standing on my roof and saw hundreds of Afghan soldiers drive into town," Rauf said. "All the shops are closed and families are staying inside their homes."

British military spokesman Lt.-Col. Richard Eaton couldn't confirm that the Taliban had fled but said he wouldn't be surprised.

"This is what happens. We have had a number of operations in the past where once the Taliban realize they are overmatched they tend to leave," Eaton said. "I wouldn't be surprised if that is the case here. Ultimately our aim is to take Musa Qala and if we take Musa Qala without a big fight, that's fantastic."

Deadliest fighting

The Taliban overran Musa Qala in February, four months after British troops left the town following a contentious peace agreement that gave security responsibilities to Afghan elders.

U.S.-led coalition troops carried out air strikes Sunday against compounds believed used by Taliban weapons smugglers in Musa Qala, the coalition said Monday. Several militants were killed and two civilians were wounded, it claimed.

Following the air strike, the joint Afghan and coalition forces came under attack as they searched compounds in the area. "Using a combination of accurate, conventional munitions and small arms, the combined force returned fire, killing the militants," it said.

Ten suspects were detained.

Musa Qala is in the north of Helmand province, the world's largest opium poppy growing region— and the front line of Afghanistan's bloodiest fighting this year.

Helicopter crash

Elsewhere, an Afghan army helicopter crashed in central Afghanistan on Monday because of bad weather, killing four people, the Defence Ministry said. The Mi-17 helicopter went down in Salar district of Wardak province, where the weather was foggy.

Two helicopters were travelling from the capital Kabul toward western Afghanistan when one of them crashed, said Wardak provincial police chief Zafaruddin, who goes by only one name. Authorities recovered three bodies from the burning wreckage, he said.

In neighbouring Sangin district, Afghan police clashed Monday with a group of Taliban, leaving 15 insurgents dead and 11 others wounded, said district police chief Mohammad Ali.

There were no casualties among Afghan troops, he said.