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Page last updated at 15:18 GMT, Sunday, 14 February 2010

Nato-led forces battle gunmen and booby traps

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Cautious advance in Afghan offensive

US, UK and Afghan forces have faced gun battles and numerous booby-traps on day two of a major offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Thousands of troops are advancing carefully, a day after swooping on Marjah and Nad Ali in Helmand province.

In the operation's first known civilian deaths, Nato said rockets aimed at insurgents missed their target and hit a house, killing 12 people.

A third Nato death related to Operation Moshtarak has also been confirmed.

American-led Operation Moshtarak - meaning "together" in the Dari language - is the biggest attack since the Taliban fell in 2001.

The operation is the first big test of US President Barack Obama's new "surge" strategy for Afghanistan.

Tribal meetings

The BBC's Frank Gardner, at Nato's Kandahar headquarters, says that building by building, compound by compound, US Marines and British troops are trying to clear Marjah and Nad Ali districts of hundreds, possibly thousands, of booby traps planted by the insurgents.

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.

But, our correspondent says, the real challenge is still to come: building lasting security for the residents of central Helmand.

Many residents are believed to be cautious about welcoming government forces for fear they will soon depart again.

So the operation's success or failure depends on whether it can be swiftly followed by security and good governance, and win the support of the people, our correspondent adds.

Nato officers and Afghan troops are holding shuras (meetings) with tribal leaders, and plan to bring in hundreds of Afghan police in the coming days to help secure the captured areas.

One tribal council member in Nad Ali, Abdul Rehman Sabir, told Agence France-Presse news agency he thought Nato had the right approach this time.

"I think they will be very effective. They will cooperate with the government and the people."

Senior Nato officials told the BBC that joint Afghan-Nato patrol bases will soon be set up in the area and 900 newly trained Afghan police are poised to come in to re-establish government control.

Casualties

The operation began before dawn on Saturday when more than 15,000 troops flew into central Helmand.

American forces, led by 4,000 Marines, are focusing on Marjah, while 4,000 British troops are in Nad Ali.

MARJAH: 'TALIBAN STRONGHOLD'
Town and district about 40km (25 miles) south-west of Lashkar Gah
Population of town estimated at 80,000; Marjah district: 125,000
An area of lush vegetation and farmland
Last remaining major Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand
Considered a centre for assembling roadside bombs
Lucrative supply centre for opium poppies, a Taliban revenue source
Estimates of Taliban numbers ranged from 400 to 1,000

A large Afghan force, as well as Canadians, Danes and Estonians, is also involved.

Three Isaf deaths related to Operation Moshtarak have been confirmed.

On Saturday, a British soldier, of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, died in a bomb blast in Nad Ali, while a US soldier was killed by gunfire in Marjah.

On Sunday, another service member was killed in an IED attack.

Meanwhile, the top Nato commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, apologised to President Hamid Karzai for the deaths of 12 civilians when a rocket hit a house in Marjah.

Nato said in a statement: "Two rockets from a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launched at insurgents firing upon Afghan and [Nato] forces impacted approximately 300 metres (980ft) off their intended target, killing 12 civilians."

At least 20 Taliban fighters were killed and another 11 detained on Saturday, an Afghan commander said.

At a Ministry of Defence briefing in London, Maj Gen Gordon Messenger said the operation had so far "gone to plan".

"Nothing has stopped the mission from progressing," he said, although UK troops had taken small-arms fire.

AFP quoted President Obama's top security adviser, Gen James Jones, as also saying the offensive was "going well".

President Obama will be briefed on Sunday by the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal.

'Publicity stunt'

The Red Cross has set up a first-aid post in Marjah, which it says has already treated dozens of residents injured in the fighting.

Tribal meetingin Nad Ali, 14 Feb 2010
Helmand's deputy governor addresses a tribal meeting in Nad Ali

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

As well as having been a Taliban stronghold, Marjah has also long been regarded as a linchpin of the lucrative network for smuggling opium - the raw ingredient used to make heroin.

The BBC's Frank Gardner says RAF Tornado jets and drones have spent the past few days scanning the two districts for freshly laid IEDs.

US Marine commander Brig Gen Larry Nicholson told AFP his forces in Marjah had "blown up a lot of IEDs" and come up against "a lot of sniper fire".

HAVE YOUR SAY
The "surge" approach drove most of the insurgents out of Iraq and there is no reason why it shouldn't work in Afghanistan
Alan Trent, London
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Using metal detectors and sniffer dogs, the Marines have been painstakingly clearing hidden bombs from houses, one by one.

Gen Nicholson estimated the Marjah area could take up to 30 days to make safe.

One pharmacist told Marines that hidden bombs had been placed around the entrance to his shop, reports AP.

Correspondents say most of the Taliban appear to have scattered in the face of overwhelming force, possibly waiting to regroup before mounting attacks.

But on Sunday, a flag-raising ceremony by Nato-led forces in Marjah came under fire, reports Reuters news agency.

"I have always dreamed of raising the Afghanistan flag over Marjah," Afghan soldier Almast Khan told Reuters.

A Taliban commander, named as Mullah Abdul Rezaq Akhund, reportedly labelled the operation a public relations stunt.

"Their main objective from all this propaganda is to give some prestige to the defeated military commander General Stanley McChrystal," he said in a statement e-mailed to AFP.

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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