MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Twelve Taliban fighters were killed overnight in a NATO offensive against the group's last stronghold in Afghanistan's most violent province, a provincial government official said.
The assault, one of NATO's biggest against the Taliban since the Afghan war began in 2001, is the first test of U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to send 30,000 more troops to seize insurgent-held areas ahead of a planned 2011 troop drawdown.
"There were bombardments in parts of Marjah and as a result 12 Taliban have been killed," Dawud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial governor of Helmand, told reporters.
Much of the success of the operation in Helmand Province depends on whether the new administration wins the trust of the local population and Afghan troops are effective enough to keep the Taliban from returning.
Civilians have already expressed doubts that Afghan troops can keep control of the district if the Taliban are cleared.
At a meeting with government authorities close to Marjah, some 200 villagers urged the regional government to persuade NATO-led troops to remain in Marjah once they secure the area, Ahmadi said.
"They said that the Afghan forces do not have the ability to keep control of the area," Ahmadi said.
NATO and the Afghan government's credibility rests on limiting civilian casualties, especially since NATO commanders told Marjah residents to stay home during the offensive which could last weeks.
NATO rockets killed 12 Afghan civilians on February 14 in the second day of an offensive designed to impose Afghan authority on one of the last big Taliban strongholds in the country's most violent province.
The offensive has been flagged for weeks to persuade Taliban fighters to leave so the area can be recaptured with minimal damage or loss of civilian life, in the hope that the roughly 100,000 people there will welcome the Afghan administration.
Marjah has long been a breeding ground for insurgents and lucrative opium poppy cultivation, which Western countries say funds the insurgency.
The United States' top military officer on February 14 said the assault on Marjah had got "off to a good start."
"It's actually very difficult to predict [the end]," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a visit to Israel. "We have from a planning standpoint talked about a few weeks, but I don't know that."
The attack started on February 13 with waves of helicopters ferrying troops into Marjah and the nearby Nad Ali district. The next day, U.S. Marines came under intense fire.
"There was fighting last night and some sporadic clashes are still going on in Marjah. The enemy has suffered casualties," said Ghulam Mahaiuddin Ghori, a senior Afghan army general in Helmand.