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Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Monday, 8 February 2010

Afghan villages abandoned before Nato-led operation

Afghans flee from Marjah and nearby areas

Hundreds of villagers living in a Taliban-controlled area of southern Afghanistan are leaving before a major Nato-led offensive gets under way.

It is expected to be one of the largest counter-insurgency operations since the Afghan conflict began in 2001.

The operation to clear insurgents from the southern town of Marjah, in Helmand province, is expected to begin soon.

Meanwhile two British solders have been killed by a bomb in Helmand. They were not involved in the Marjah operation.

The two soldiers were on foot patrol in Sangin when they were killed by a roadside bomb on Sunday, the Ministry of Defence said.

'Scared'

Nato says the town of Marjah is home to the biggest community under insurgent control in southern Afghanistan.

Operation Moshtarak - which means "together" in the Dari language - is expected to be launched within the next few days.

ANALYSIS
Frank Gardner
Frank Gardner, BBC News, Kandahar

In the camps and bases here in southern Afghanistan there is a sense of impending action.

Within the next few days thousands of British, US and Afghan assault support troops are due to move into an area of central Helmand province, dominated until now by insurgents and drug lords.

The British general in overall command, Maj Gen Nick Carter, insists this will be different from previous operations where coalition forces have driven out the Taliban, then had too few troops to maintain security.

Afghan forces will be followed up by the introduction of large numbers of newly trained police supported by the coalition, he says.

Nato reportedly distributed leaflets in the Marjah area at the weekend warning of the planned offensive.

Villagers said the leaflets gave the names of several alleged militant commanders and told fighters to leave the area or be killed, the Associated Press reports.

One resident, Gul Muhammed, told AFP news agency why he had left town.

"There are Taliban all over the place and foreign troops around Marjah," he said. "So I was scared that we might get hurt."

Another man, Mohammad Hakim, was heading to Lashkar Gah with his wife, nine sons, four daughters and grandchildren.

"Everybody is worried that they'll get caught in the middle when this operation starts," he told the Associated Press.

"I can stay for one or two weeks," he said. "But if I have to leave my agriculture land for months and months, then how will I feed my family?"

Displaced Afghan families, fleeing their village in Marjah, arrive in Lashkar Gah city of Helmand province on February 8, 2010.
Locals fear being trapped between troops and militants

Provincial officials believe about 200 families have left Marjah in recent weeks.

But the International Committee of the Red Cross said there was no way to count how many people had left the town

Many are thought to have gone to stay with relatives or found other accommodation in nearby towns, rather than applying for emergency aid.

'Big test'

The forthcoming offensive will be the first major military action since US President Barack Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 extra US troops.

MARJAH: 'TALIBAN STRONGHOLD'
Town and district about 40km (25 miles) south-west of Lashkar Gah
Lies in Helmand's 'Green Zone' - an irrigated area of lush vegetation and farmland
Last remaining major Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand
Area considered a centre for assembling roadside bombs
Key supply centre for opium poppies - lucrative revenue source for Taliban
Estimates of Taliban numbers range up to 1,000
Population of Marjah town put at 80,000 while the whole of Marjah district is thought to have 125,000

Planning has been under way for weeks.

The British general in overall command of the operation, Maj Gen Nick Carter, has told the BBC this will be the first big test for President Obama's new strategy in Afghanistan.

For the first time, Gen Carter said, Afghan forces would be at the forefront of planning the operation. Afghan police would provide support after initial military operations.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, at the regional headquarters in Kandahar, says that commanders are aware of the Afghan police's sometimes dubious reputation and are preparing to monitor their performance during the operation.

The overall Nato commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, said the operation would "send a strong signal that the Afghan government is expanding its security control".

Late on Sunday, UK Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth warned of likely casualties among coalition troops during the offensive.

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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Sky News Troops Flush Out Taliban Ahead Of Major Battle - 5 hrs ago
Telegraph Afghan deaths take death toll above Falklands - 7 hrs ago
MSNBC NATO: Afghans to play big role in offensive - 15 hrs ago
Mirror.co.uk Afghan deaths reach Falklands level - 19 hrs ago



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