Afghan fight drags on as Taliban use human shields

MARJAH: A US-led offensive in southern Afghanistan dragged into a sixth day today, with progress slowed by bombs and what commanders say is the Taliban’s use of civilians as human shields.

The assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah is being keenly watched as the first major test of US President Barack Obama’s strategy to end eight years of war by driving out the hardline militia and reasserting government control.

About 15,000 Afghan, US and NATO troops are conducting Operation Mushtarak (Together) against about 400 to 1,000 Taliban fighters in what has been billed as the biggest assault since the 2001 US-led invasion. An Afghan general said this week that Marjah and the Nad Ali district were almost under control, but officers from the battlefield paint a grim picture of Taliban hiding behind civilians and rigging roads and buildings with bombs. “They have taken civilian people hostages,” said General Mohaidin Ghori, the commander of the estimated 4,400 Afghan troops taking part in the operation in the drug-producing heartland of the southern province of Helmand. “They put women and children on the roofs of homes and are firing from behind them,” he said.

In one case, rebels were seen firing from the window of a house packed with non-combatants, with a crying child forced to stand in front of the compound, said an Afghan military report. Taliban spokesmen have denied using human shields. Also slowing progress are the hidden mines that have been planted on the land by retreating militants.