Page last updated at 18:44 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Afghanistan missile that killed civilians 'hit target'

Operation Moshtarak 'progress good'

A missile that struck an Afghan house killing 12 people hit its intended target, the commander of British forces in the country's south says.

Maj Gen Nick Carter said the rocket had not malfunctioned, adding that the system responsible for firing the US missile was back in use.

Officials have said three Taliban, as well as civilians were in the house.

US forces have faced some resistance around the Taliban haven of Marjah as Operation Moshtarak continues.

The progress of US troops has been hampered by sniper fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in some areas.

British and Afghan troops are reported to be advancing more swiftly in the nearby district of Nad Ali.

A Nato spokesman said they had begun setting up joint patrol bases to provide a permanent security presence.

'Unacceptable casualties'

Six children were among those killed when two US missiles struck a house on the outskirts of Marjah on Sunday.

Initial Nato reports said the missiles had landed about 300 metres off their intended target. Gen Carter blamed these "conflicting" reports on "the fog of war".

"The missile arrived at the target that it was supposed to arrive at," he said.

Gen Carter said that protecting the local population remained at the heart of the operation and that coalition forces were being very careful with aerial-launched missiles.

Caroline Wyatt
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News

The main military challenge now for coalition and Afghan forces in Marjah and Nad Ali now is dealing with the sheer number of IEDs or roadside bombs laid by the departing insurgents. Maj Gen Nick Carter admitted they had been surprised by the quantity of devices, which in some cases were sophisticated and networked, with a number of major junctions around Marjah lined with "nuisance mines".

The operation to clear them will take time, but is essential to protect both soldiers and civilians, as well as ensuring clear routes for reconstruction materials to travel down.

Gen Carter said that two-thirds of Marjah had now been cleared of insurgents and that the operation to clear the rest of the town would take a few days.

Civilian casualties are particularly sensitive during the joint Nato and Afghan Operation Moshtarak to force the Taliban out of their strongholds in Helmand.

Nato has stressed that the safety of civilians in the areas targeted is its highest priority.

Lt Gen Nick Parker, the most senior British officer in Afghanistan, told the BBC it was absolutely unacceptable to have civilian casualties, whatever the circumstances, and that announcing the offensive well in advance had helped save lives.

Dawud Ahmadi - a spokesman for Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal - said the Afghan National Army and Nato forces were clearing areas around Marjah of mines on the fourth day of the anti-Taliban operation.

"There is still sporadic Taliban firing from residential areas in the north of the town, but we are not using air power or heavy bombardments to dislodge them because we want to avoid civilian casualties," he said.

Mr Ahmadi said that 1,240 families had been displaced and evacuated from Marjah - and all had received aid in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

He said the aim of the operation was to rid Marjah of militancy and drugs traffickers and then hand it over to Afghan police before establishing a civil administration for the area.

Himars rocket system

Earlier, Afghan Gen Ghulam Mahaiuddin told Reuters news agency that many Taliban militants had "escaped" and that his forces were now searching houses for weapons and ammunition.

They were encouraging those villagers who had left the area before the military operation to return, he said.

But despite Afghan government claims that the insurgents were on the run, small teams of insurgents repeatedly attacked troops and mine-clearing vehicles with rocket, rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

US Marines have twice unsuccessfully tried to clear a bazaar area in Marjah of enemy positions.

Lt Josh Diddams told AFP that in some pockets in Marjah, Taliban militants were standing their ground and fighting, or were firing on US and Afghan forces from homes and mosques.

Marjah resident Haji Mohammed Jan told the BBC the Taliban had tried to stop people leaving, but he and others had managed to escape.

'Surge' strategy

Operation Moshtarak, meaning "together" in the Dari language, is the biggest coalition attack since the Taliban fell in 2001.

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

Allied officials have reported only two coalition deaths so far - one American and one Briton killed on Saturday.

Two other Nato soldiers died on Monday in unrelated bomb strikes in Helmand, military spokesman Sgt Kevin Bell said.

Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents had been killed so far in the offensive.

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