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Civilians Who Remained Behind Endure Marjah Offensive

A U.S. Marine stands guard as a landing helicopter churns up a cloud of dust in Marjah, Helmand Province.

A U.S. Marine stands guard as a landing helicopter churns up a cloud of dust in Marjah, Helmand Province.

(RFE/RL) -- Ahead of the massive offensive being conducted in the Helmand Province city of Marjah, young farmer Rahman Shah fled for the safety of nearby Lashkar Gah.

Now settled in on a dusty street in the provincial capital, he can be counted among the nearly 10,000 civilians who fled Marjah and its surrounding villages before Afghan and NATO troops started to move in on February 12.

But Rahman is in the minority. Out of a population of nearly 100,000 people, an estimated 90,000 remained in Marjah, where they are now caught in the crossfire of urban warfare.

Rahman, who has managed to remain in contact with family and friends who stayed behind, tells RFE RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that in certain areas of the city, NATO troops have dug in and are engaging in occasional firefights with insurgents.

And from what he is hearing, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of the intensifying battles.

"The civilians are trapped because although they had planned to leave after the fighting started in cars or anything they could find, all the roads are mined now and they cannot leave their homes," said Rahman. "Their food supplies are running out and hey face thirst and hunger. People are slaughtering and eating up their cattle. All the shops are closed even as most people stayed behind. Less than 10 percent of the residents left. We have information that civilians have also suffered deaths and injuries and they cannot bury their dead or help their wounded."

The fighting pits about 15,000 Afghan and NATO troops against nearly 1,000 insurgents hiding in irrigation ditches, poppy fields, and narrow lanes of Marjah and its satellite villages.

The operation, named "Moshtarak," or "together," is the biggest NATO offensive against the Taliban since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.

The advance was initially hampered by scattered Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS) and Taliban snipers.

The latest reports from the battlefield in Marjah indicate that U.S. Marines are facing stiff resistance in the city, which is a main Taliban stronghold in Helmand and a major smuggling crossroads.

And Afghan military officers are encountering another major obstacle -- the Taliban's use of human shields. Afghan forces say the Taliban's tactic of firing from inside or next to compounds where civilians are trapped has forced them to slow their advance.

Brigadier General Mohiudin Ghori, the brigade commander of Afghan troops in Marjah, yesterday claimed that in some cases women and children may have been ordered to stand on roofs or in windows of buildings from which Taliban fighters were shooting.

NATO has so far confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. But Afghan rights groups claim at least 19 have died.

Some civilians have reportedly managed to escape into northern parts of Marjah that are now under the firm control of Afghan and NATO troops. In a small but positive sign, a few shops in that area of the city have reportedly reopened.

Another positive development was announced by Afghan army commander Colonel Mohammad Iqbal, who claimed no major Taliban resistance was seen throughout the city today, and that overall resistance had been relatively light since the beginning of the offensive.

"We haven't met any heavy resistance from the Taliban ever since we began our joint operation together with the U.S. Marines and Afghan army," Iqbal said. "They [the Taliban] have lost their morale and are now relying on occasional terrorist attacks to prove to the world that they are present."

Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, claims that 40 insurgents have been killed in the offensive so far. Five NATO service troops and one Afghan soldier have also been killed.

Mangal visited Marjah on February 17 to raise the green, black, and red colors of the Afghan flag in the city's heavily damaged bazaar and to appraise the needs of the civilians trapped there. He later told reporters that the Afghan police will gradually take over the regions cleared of insurgents.

He says that normal life has yet to resume in Marjah. Noting that that some farmers have returned to their fields, Mangal said people in the city remained reluctant to visit the market.

"I hope that the now intensifying mop-up operations will clear Marjah of terrorists and [armed] opponents," Mangal said. "Inshallah, this will help in satisfying people and helping them to return to normal life in Marjah. For now Marjah is in the midst of war and it is being cleared."