Marines converge on Marjah Taliban stronghold

MARJAH: Marines and Afghan units today converged on a dangerous western quarter of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, with NATO forces facing “determined resistance” as their assault on the southern town entered its second week.

Fighter jets, drones and attack helicopters hovered overhead, as Marine and Afghan companies moved on a 5.2-sq

km area of the town where more than 40 insurgents have apparently holed up.

“They are squeezed,” said Lt Col Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. “It looks like they want to stay and fight but they can always drop their weapons and slip away.

That’s the nature of this war.” Insurgents are putting up a “determined resistance” in various parts of Marjah, though the overall offensive is “on track,” NATO said today, eight days after thousands of Afghan and international forces launched their largest joint operation since the Taliban regime’s ouster in 2001.

Late last week, Maj Gen Nick Carter, head of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, said he believed it would take at least 30 days to complete securing the Nad Ali district and Marjah in Helmand province, a hub for a lucrative opium trade that profits militants. Once the town is secure, NATO plans to rush in a civilian Afghan administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population and prevent the Taliban from returning.

Twelve NATO troops and one Afghan soldier have died so

far in the offensive. Senior

Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 insurgents have died.

NATO said one service member died today in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan, and

two died yesterday - one by rocket or mortar fire in eastern Afghanistan and another in a bombing in the south. None of the fatalities was related to the Marjah area fighting. Their nationalities were not given. Today, Marines used missiles to destroy a large, abandoned school compound that had been booby-trapped with explosives in Marjah. The school had been shut down two years earlier by the Taliban, residents told Marines.

“They said they would kill

the father of any child that went to school,” said farmer Maman Jan, deploring that his six children were illiterate.

Marines also found several abandoned Kalashnikov rifles along with ammunition hidden in homes. Sporadic volleys of insurgent machine-gun fire rang out through the day. “They shoot from right here in front of a house, they don’t care that there are children around,” said Abdel Rahim, a Kuchi nomad.