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Afghanistan Nato operation 'meets first objectives'

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Cautious advance in Afghan offensive

Nato forces in Afghanistan have hailed as a success the first phase of a major operation to oust the Taliban from two key districts of Helmand in the south.

More than 15,000 US, UK and Afghan troops swept into Marjah and Nad Ali before dawn on Saturday. Officials said key day one objectives had been met.

Overnight there was limited fighting, but no casualties were reported. Two Nato deaths were confirmed on Saturday.

Operation Moshtarak is the biggest attack since the Taliban fell in 2001.

'Minimal interference'

Moshtarak - which means "together" in the Dari language - is being led by 4,000 US marines, supported by 4,000 British troops, a large Afghan force and Canadians, Danes and Estonians.

AT THE SCENE
Ian Pannell
Ian Pannell,
BBC News, Nad Ali

British and Afghan soldiers are searching compounds throughout the area, looking for insurgents and defusing improvised explosive devices, which have killed and maimed so many.

Despite far less resistance than they had expected, there are still insurgents in the area. At the same time, they are working to convince locals that they are here to stay.

They have been holding meetings with key tribal elders, and some development work, including the building of a bridge, has already begun.

There has also been much talk of reintegration, and commanders want to persuade some insurgents to down their weapons.

But no-one is under any illusions that this is a long-term project. Although there is cautious optimism, nobody is talking about victory yet.

The offensive began with waves of helicopters ferrying US Marines and members of the Afghan National Army into Marjah. British and Afghan troops then flew into Nad Ali district, to the north, followed by tanks and combat units.

On Saturday, Maj Gen Gordon Messenger told a briefing in London there had been "sporadic fighting" and the Taliban were unable to "put up a coherent response".

"The key objectives have been secured and have been done so with minimal interference," he said.

However, one British soldier, from the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, was killed by an explosion in Nad Ali. A US soldier was meanwhile killed by small-arms fire, officials said.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised the UK forces for their action.

He said: "This day will be long remembered as the day when a new phase of the campaign to win the support of the people of Afghanistan was initiated."

A White House spokesman said President Barack Obama was keeping a close eye on combat operations and had had multiple updates. He was also to be briefed by the top US commander in Afghanistan on Sunday morning.

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

Residents of Marjah said Taliban fighters had fallen back into the centre of the town, and there were reports of gun battles throughout Saturday.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, spoke to a number of news agencies, saying insurgents were still resisting in Marjah and were engaged in hit-and-run tactics.

The BBC's Frank Gardner, at Kandahar airbase, says the Taliban and other insurgents have kept a relatively low profile so far during this offensive.

But intelligence officers in Kandahar believe the insurgents are likely to try to exploit any opportunity to reverse gains made by Nato and the Afghan government forces.

The commander of Afghan troops in the operation, Mohammad Zazai, said 20 militants had so far been killed and 11 detained.

It was estimated there were between 400 and 1,000 militants based in the region before Operation Moshtarak was launched.

Nato's aim is to secure Marjah and its surrounding area, which have a population of about 125,000, as soon as possible and then bring in aid and public services.

Booby traps

In Kabul, Nato civilian representative Mark Sedwill said the news of the Nato-led attack "appeared to be positive" although he stressed it was still early.

He said it was vital to bring in "civilian support from the Afghan government" as soon as possible.

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Afghan Defence Minister Gen Rahim Wardak also said it was important to bring in local security forces quickly.

He said there was a threat from booby-traps left by the Taliban.

"The area has been heavily mined, that's why we are moving so slowly," he said in Kabul.

US Marine ordnance units are working their way through Marjah, finding and exploding bombs. Three US soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan, Nato said, although was unclear if it was related to Moshtarak.

Marjah has also long been regarded as a linchpin of the lucrative network for smuggling opium - the raw ingredient used to make heroin - harvested from Helmand's poppy fields.

Nato had distributed leaflets in the area warning of the planned offensive in a bid to limit civilian casualties.

The operation is part of an effort to secure a 320-km (200-mile) horseshoe-shaped string of towns that runs along the Helmand River, through Kandahar and on to the Pakistani border.

OPERATION MOSHTARAK: DAY ONE - 13 FEBRUARY 2010
map
1: Consolidation of security
2: UK/Danish troops disrupt Taliban movements
3: Forces secure Canal 56 crossings
4: Helicopter insertions
5: Helicopter and ground insertions into Marjah

Source: UK Ministry of Defence




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