Soldiers capture heart of Taliban stronghold

Troops raised the Afghan flag in the bullet-ridden main market of the Taliban’s southern stronghold of Marjah today as fighting continued elsewhere in town.

About 15,000 Nato and Afghan troops are deployed in the offensive around Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people that was the largest population centre in southern Helmand province under Taliban control. Nato hopes to rush in aid and public services as soon as the town is secured to try to win the loyalty of the population.

With Operation Moshtarak in its fifth day, an Afghan army soldier climbed to the roof of an abandoned shop and raised a large bamboo pole with Afghanistan’s official green-and-red flag.

A crowd including the provincial governor, a few hundred Marine and Afghan troops and handfuls of civilians watched from below.

The market was calm during the ceremony and US Marines there said they were in control of the area.

But the detritus of fighting was everywhere. The back of the building over which the flag waved had been blown away. Shops were riddled with bullet holes. Grocery stores and fruit stalls had been left standing open, hastily deserted by their owners. White metal fences marked off areas that had not yet been cleared of bombs.

Afghan soldiers said they were guarding the shops to prevent looting and hoped their owners would soon feel safe enough to return.

The Marines and Afghan troops “saw sustained but less frequent insurgent activity” in Marjah today, limited mostly to small-scale attacks, Nato said.

Marines said that Taliban resistance started to seem more disorganised than in the first few days of the assault, when small teams of insurgents swarmed around Marine and Afghan army positions firing rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The offensive in Marjah – about 380 miles south-west of Kabul – is the biggest assault since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and a major test of a retooled Nato strategy to focus on protecting civilians, rather than killing insurgents.

Even with caution on both the Nato and Afghan side, civilians have been killed. Nato has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have been killed.

Insurgents are increasingly using civilians as human shields – firing at Afghan troops from inside or next to compounds where women and children appear to have been ordered to stand on a roof or in a window, said General Mohiudin Ghori, the brigade commander for Afghan troops in Marjah.

“Especially in the south of Marjah, the enemy is fighting from compounds where soldiers can very clearly see women or children on the roof or in a second-floor or third-floor window,” he said. “They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians.”

Gen. Ghori said troops made choices either not to fire at the insurgents with civilians nearby or they have had to target and advance much more slowly in order to distinguish between militants and civilians as they go.

Afghan police chosen for the task in Marjah were selected from other regions of the country instead of Helmand province, Marine officials said, in order to avoid handing over day-to-day security to officers who may have tribal or friendship ties to the Taliban.

About 40 insurgents have been killed, Helmand governor Gulab Mangal said in Lashkar Gah, the nearby provincial capital, after the flag-raising.

Troops are encountering less fire from mortars and RPGs than at the start of the assault, suggesting that the insurgents may have depleted some of their reserves or that the heavier weapons have been hit, Gen. Ghori said.

But the Taliban have not given up. Snipers hiding in haystacks in poppy fields have exchanged fire with Marines and Afghan troops in recent days as they swept south.

A Marine spokesman said the zone appeared quieter today but was likely to flare up again.

Nato said it reinstated a high-tech rocket system that it suspended after two rockets hit a house on the outskirts of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, including at least five children.

The military coalition originally said the missiles went hundreds of yards off target but said yesterday they in fact hit the intended target.

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