Mines, snipers slow progress in Afghan offensive

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Mines and militant sniper fire slowed progress in a massive US-led assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, commanders said on Sunday after hailing early successes.

US Marines led the charge on Marjah, a town of 80,000 in the central Helmand River valley controlled for years by militants and drug traffickers, in the first major test of President Barack Obama’s new surge policy.

Some 15,000 US, British and Afghan soldiers stormed the Islamist stronghold in NATO’s biggest operation since overthrowing the Taliban regime in 2001.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed the combined forces had suffered two deaths â€" one British and one American â€" in the assault.

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, described day one of Operation Mushtarak â€" “together” in Dari â€" as “good” and said “a couple of thousand Marines” were already inside Marjah.

But as he visited a Marines base on the northeastern flank of the town, Nicholson said his men were meeting resistance from Taliban fighters.

“We took a lot of sniper fire,” he said, adding that mine-sweeping vehicles “had blown up a lot of IEDs and have founds lots of IEDs with dead batteries”.

IEDs, or improvised explosive devises â€" crude, cheap and easily made bombs that are planted on roadsides and often detonated remotely â€" are the main killer of foreign and Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.

Militants are said to have peppered Marjah township and its surrounds with the mines, which can be almost impossible to detect.

“Yesterday we shot 17 Hellfire missiles on guys planting IEDs,” Nicholson told Marines of 1/3 Charlie Company, according to an AFP photographer at the base.

A British soldier was killed by an IED in Nad Ali town, which is located in the same district as Marjah, ISAF spokesman Sergeant Kevin Bell said.

An American soldier was killed by small arms fire in Marjah, he added, confirming the first foreign troop casualties of the offensive, which aims to neutralize the Taliban and re-establish Afghan government control.

Senior British military spokesman Major General Gordon Messenger said in London: “The key objective has been secured.”

The main aims for British troops were to secure the population centers and installations such as police stations in the Chah-e Anjir Triangle northeast of Marjah, he said.

There had been “sporadic fighting” but the Taliban appeared “confused and disjointed” and unable “to put up a coherent response,” he said.

At least 20 Taliban fighters were killed in the first hours of the assault, said General Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of the operation’s Afghan troops.

BBC television said six of the dead militants were foreign fighters. It did not give their nationalities, but if confirmed their presence in Marjah could reflect a link between the militants and the Al-Qaeda fundamentalist group.

The battle for Marjah, an agricultural plain that is the source of most of the world’s opium, is the first real test of the new US war strategy devised by General Stanley McChrystal, commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan.

A Taliban commander named as Mullah Abdul Rezaq Akhund condemned the Marjah assault as a public relations stunt aimed at saving face for McChrystal.

“Their main objective from all this propaganda is to give some prestige to the defeated and failed military commander General Stanley McChrystal, even if it is the short-term capture of a small village, and shown on Western television,” he was quoted as saying in a statement emailed to AFP.

Obama had received multiple updates on the offensive and would be briefed by McChrystal on Sunday morning, the White House said.

The “air insertion” involved helicopters, A-10s, Tornadoes and C-130 aircraft and was completed in less than three and a half hours, ISAF said.

Mushtarak is the first major assault on a Taliban stronghold since Obama announced in December that he was sending an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan in 2010.

The US and NATO already have 113,000 troops in the country battling the insurgents. NATO has pledged another 10,000, bringing the total to more than 150,000 by August.

Source: AFP

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