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Mines, Gunfire Slow Progress In Afghan Offensive

A U.S. Marine gears up for a mission northeast of Marjah in Helmand Province.

A U.S. Marine gears up for a mission northeast of Marjah in Helmand Province.

(RFE/RL) -- Reports from Afghanistan says that thousands of Afghan and allied troops are trying to consolidate gains on the second day of a major offensive against the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand.

More than 15,000 troops from the United States, Britain, Afghanistan, and other nations swept into the town of Marjah and neighboring Nad Ali district before dawn on February 13.

Operation Moshtarak -- which means "together" in the Dari language -- is described as the biggest allied offensive since the ouster of the Taliban regime by a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001. It aims to drive the Taliban from one of their last big strongholds in southern Afghanistan.

Two soldiers, an American and a Briton, were reported killed on the first day of the operation, while Afghan forces said at least 27 militants had died so far.

Separately, NATO forces said in a statement that 12 civilians were killed by coalition rocket fire that was intended for militants, Reuters reported.

"It's regrettable that in the course of our joint efforts, innocent lives were lost. We extend our heartfelt sympathies and will ensure we do all we can to avoid future incidents," U.S General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander, said in a statement. Afghan President Hamid Karzai also expressed sadness at the incident and ordered an investigation.

The safety of civilians is a key issue for NATO, which many Afghans accuse of killing too many civilians through careless operations. Heavy civilian casualties in Marjah could further undermine efforts by the U.S.-backed Afghan government to win broader public support.

Earlier, Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that the offensive would likely benefit the local residents, like previous military operations in the province had done.

"After operations in Garmsair, Nawa, parts of Nadali, and Nawzad [districts], a wide opportunity for work was given to the people,” Mangal said. “The same will be done in Marjah because a number of [military] units will remain in the area to secure stability there. The aim is to avoid any opportunity for the enemy to intimidate our people."

Military officials said squads of U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers occupied a majority of Marjah, but gunfire continued as pockets of militants dug in and fought.

Soldiers advanced carefully, working their way from house to house, using sniffer dogs and metal detectors to clear the land mines, homemade bombs, and booby-traps littering the area.

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, said clearing the area will probably take 30 days. He told the AP news agency that there was "a massive amount of improvised explosive devices."

Militants ‘Defensive’

Marine spokesman Lieutenant Josh Diddams said the troops were starting to come across areas where the insurgents have taken up "defensive positions." Initially, he said, the militants had conducted hit-and-run attacks.

Reuters reported that a U.S. Marine company position came under intense fire from all sides today at a building where an Afghan flag had been raised to mark progress in the offensive.

A coalition statement said NATO uncovered 250 kilograms of ammonium nitrate and other bomb-making materials while clearing a compound in Marjah.

As British, Afghan, and U.S. troops fanned out across the Nad Ali district to the north of the mud-brick town, the coalition said a weapons cache was found, including artillery rounds, pressure plates, and blasting caps.

On February 13 in London, Major General Gordon Messenger said British forces "have successfully secured the area militarily" with only sporadic resistance from Taliban forces.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said insurgents were still resisting in Marjah and were engaged in hit-and-run tactics. A Taliban commander, named as Mullah Abdul Rezaq Akhund, labeled the allied operation a public relations stunt.

It is estimated that there are between 400 and 1,000 militants holed up in Marjah -- a center of both Taliban activity and opium production.

Plans For Aid

Once Marjah and the surrounding area are secured, NATO hopes to deliver aid quickly and provide public services in a bid to win support among the estimated 125,000 people in the town and surrounding villages.

The alliance said it had already held two shuras, or meetings of elders, with local residents with the aim of enlisting community support for the NATO mission.

Many Marjah residents fled to safety ahead of the offensive, and are now living in rented housing, dilapidated mud huts, or shabby tents in Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah.

"We came here from Marjah; as you see we live in terrible conditions,” said Haji Kamal, who was displaced by the fighting. “The place we are sheltering in is almost totally destroyed and we are facing many problems here."

The United Nations said an estimated 900 families had fled the Marjah area and were registered for emergency assistance in Lashkar Gah.

The White House said Defense Secretary Robert Gates would have General McChrystal brief President Barack Obama later today.

RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report. With material from agency reports.