Page last updated at 21:26 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010

US-led troops make 'steady progress' in Marjah

Afghan soldier with US troops in Marjah 22.2.10
US and Afghan troops have faced hard fighting in Marjah

US-led forces fighting to clear a Taliban stronghold in south Afghanistan are making "steady progress", the most senior US military commander says.

Adm Mike Mullen said the operation in the town of Marjah in Helmand province was "messy... but that doesn't mean that it's not worth the cost".

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Operation Moshtarak in Helmand was proceeding slower than expected.

About 15,000 Nato and Afghan troops are involved in the 10-day old offensive.

Earlier, the Afghan government condemned a Nato air strike in neighbouring Uruzgan province which killed at least 27 civilians.

Nato has launched an inquiry into the attack, and the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has apologised to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

'Slow pace'

Mr Gates, speaking at the Pentagon alongside Adm Mullen, said that the slow pace of Moshtarak should not affect future operations against Afghan militants.

"Even though it's going a little slower than expected, I haven't seen anything that indicates it has had any impact on the future planning that General McChrystal is doing for subsequent operations," he said.

Adm Mike Mullen
In some places the enemy fights harder than expected. The IEDs [improvised explosive devices] he has planted along the roads and at intersections, though crude, are still deadly
Adm Mike Mullen

"The situation remains serious but is no longer deteriorating," he added.

When Operation Moshtarak began, British and Afghan troops advanced swiftly through the district of Nad Ali meeting little resistance.

But US Marines and Afghan forces have encountered stiff resistance in Marjah to the south-west. Their progress has also be hindered by a large number of improvised bombs.

"As you've all been seeing, we're making steady, if perhaps a bit slower than anticipated, progress," Adm Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said.

"By all accounts the Taliban's resistance has been at best disjointed, but we have experienced difficulties. In some places the enemy fights harder than expected. The IEDs [improvised explosive devices] he has planted along the roads and at intersections, though crude, are still deadly."

Adm Mullen also expressed regret for Sunday's deadly Nato airstrike in Uruzgan province - not connected to Moshtarak.

Nato said it had hit a suspected insurgent convoy, but troops then found "a number of individuals killed and wounded", including women and children.

The Afghan government condemned the attack as "unjustifiable" and "a major obstacle" to effective counter-terrorism efforts.

Gen McChrystal, who has made winning Afghan hearts and minds a priority in ending the Taliban insurgency, said it was a "tragic loss of innocent lives".

"I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission," he said in a statement.

Suicide attack

In another development, a suicide attack in the eastern province of Nangahar on Monday killed at least 15 people including influential Afghan tribal chief Mohammad Haji Zaman.

Correspondents say the former mujahideen warlord played an important role in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001 but was suspected of having allowed Osama Bin Laden to flee to Pakistan.

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