The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, says a major military offensive about to start will "send a strong signal" to Taliban insurgents that the Afghan government is expanding its security control.
McChrystal said in Kabul today that the offensive planned for southern Afghanistan aims to clear out insurgents so local civilian authorities can retake control.
A big force of U.S. Marines as well as NATO and Afghan soldiers are expected to launch the offensive -- said by commanders to be the largest assault against Taliban-led militants since the war began -- in Helmand Province within days.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan has reported that residents of four major towns in Helmand are fleeing their homes ahead of the offensive.
Residents of Gereshk, Marjah, Naad Ali, and Baba Jee have already begun evacuating their homes and villages.
An RFE/RL correspondent said they are mostly heading for the provincial capital, Lashkargah, to seek shelter.
AFP reported earlier that hundreds of people have left Marjah, a city of 80,000.
"The government of Afghanistan will reclaim Marjah as one of its own," said the British commander of the operation, General Nick Carter.
NATO forces have been dropping leaflets in the region for weeks, warning residents of the impending assault.
A Taliban spokesman told AFP the insurgents were massing fighters around Marjah and "ready to fight."
with agency reports