Feb 10, 2010

Marjah - soon

Marines Readying to attack Marjah
U.S. Marines came under attack from insurgents armed with sniper guns and rocket-propelled grenades as they geared up Wednesday to overwhelm a Taliban bastion in Afghanistan.

Thousands of Marines along with foreign and Afghan soldiers are taking up position around the town of Marjah in Helmand, which officials say is one of the last areas of the southern province under Taliban control.

The flow of residents fleeing the imminent offensive has slowed, provincial officials said, after loaded-down cars, trucks, tractors and buses clogged roads from Marjah to provincial capital Lashkah Gar for days.

"We have announced and told people in Marjah not to leave their houses as our operation is well planned and designed to target the enemy," said Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal.

"Civilians will not be harmed," he said. Another 75 families had left Marjah, on top of 164 families who left earlier, the spokesman said. Other officials have said more than 400 families have fled.

The operation, expected to begin in days, will be the biggest push since U.S. President Obama announced a new surge of troops to Afghanistan and one of the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion defeated the Taliban regime.

It is seen as a key test of a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy that aims to follow up what officials predict will be a decisive military victory by establishing Afghan government control.

But Taliban fighters appear defiant in the face of the enormous fire power being amassed in the region, where they have held sway for years in tandem with drug traffickers.

On the northeastern edge of Marjah, an AFP photographer said U.S. Marines arrived by helicopter at a deserted junction and immediately came under sniper fire from insurgents.

The Marines' encampment, reinforced with sandbags, also came under rocket fire. U.S. Cobra helicopters were called in to attack Taliban positions, the photographer said.

The Marines searched houses and compounds for weapons and IED's )the prime Taliban killer of foreign troops) and evacuated residents from the few homes still occupied.
NATO forces dropped leaflets on the area warning of the fight to come, to give residents and insurgents time to flee and avoid a battle, officials said.

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