M A I N   N E W S

Marines, NATO forces storm Taliban bastion

Marjah (Afghanistan), February 13
Thousands of US Marines and Afghan soldiers stormed the Taliban stronghold of Marjah before dawn today, sweeping by air and ground against scattered resistance into the biggest southern town under militant control.

The massive offensive was aimed at breaking the Taliban grip over a wide area of their southern heartland.

Maj Gen Nick Carter, NATO commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, said Afghan and coalition troops, aided by 60 helicopters, made a “successful insertion” into Marjah in southern Helmand province without incurring any casualties.

“The operation is going without a hitch,” the General said as thousands of British, US and Canadian troops swept into Taliban areas to the north of Marjah.

There have been no coalition casualties reported, but NATO said three US soldiers were killed today in a bombing elsewhere in southern Afghanistan.

At least 20 insurgents have been killed in the Helmand operation, said Gen Sher Mohammad Zazai, the commander of Afghan forces in the region. Troops have recovered Kalashnikov rifles, heavy machine guns and grenades from 11 insurgents captured so far.

In Kabul, Defence Minister Rahim Wardak told reporters at mid-afternoon that most of the resistance was centred around the main market district of Marjah. The ground advance into Marjah was slowed by extensive fields of mines, homemade bombs and booby traps as Marine infantry crossed a major canal into the town’s northern entrance.

The town’s canals were built by the US in the 1950s and 1960s.

The few civilians who ventured out to talk to the Marines said teams of Taliban fighters were falling back deeper into the town, perhaps to try to regroup and mount harassment attacks.

The long-awaited assault on Marjah is the biggest offensive since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan and is a major test of a new NATO strategy focused on protecting civilians. The attack is also the first major combat operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 US reinforcements here in December to try to turn the tide of the war.

President Hamid Karzai called on Afghan and international troops “to exercise absolute caution to avoid harming civilians,” including avoiding air strikes in areas where civilians are at risk.

In a statement, he also called on Taliban fighters to renounce violence and reintegrate into civilian life.

Gunfire was ringing through the town by midday as troops picked their way slowly through poppy fields lined with homemade explosives and other land mines.

The bridge over the canal into Marjah from the north was so rigged with explosives that Marines erected temporary bridges to cross into the town.

Lance Corporal Ivan Meza, 19, was the first to walk across one of the flimsy bridges. “I did get an adrenaline rush, and that bridge is wobbly,” said Meza, a Marine combat engineer from Pismo Beach, California, who is with the 1st Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines.

Several civilians hesitantly crept out of compounds as the Marines slowly worked through a suspected mine field.

The Marines entered compounds first to make sure they were clear of bombs, then called in their Afghan counterparts to interview civilians inside.

Shopkeeper Abdul Kader, 44, said seven or eight Taliban fighters, who had been holding the position where the Marines crossed over, had fled in the middle of the night. He said he was angry at the insurgents for having planted bombs and mines all around his neighbourhood. — PTI



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