Forces clear last parts of Taliban area

MARJAH: Marines and Afghan troops who fought through the centre of Marjah linked up today with American soldiers on the northern edge of the former Taliban stronghold, clearing the town’s last major pocket of resistance.

The joint force encountered almost no hostile fire, indicating that the militants have either fled or blended in with the local population - perhaps to stage attacks later if the Afghan government fails to hold the town. Some Taliban operatives are believed to remain west of Marjah.

Establishing a credible local government is a key component of NATO’s strategy for the 2-week-old offensive on the Taliban’s longtime logistical hub and heroin-smuggling centre. Several hundred Afghan police have begun to patrol the newly cleared areas of the town in the southern province of Helmand.

After a grueling four-day march, Marines and Afghan troops today succeeded in linking up with a US Army Stryker battalion on Marjah’s northern outskirts. “Basically, you can say that Marjah has been cleared,” said Capt Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment.

The Marjah milestone came a day after Taliban suicide attackers killed at least 16 people in bomb and gun assaults on two guesthouses in Kabul. Six of the victims were Indian citizens whose bodies were returned home today.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai telephoned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today to express regret and vowed his government would take extra security measures, Karzai’s office said. An Indian statement said Singh was “outraged” at the attack.