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US Marines airdropped into Taliban-held territory

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[February 19, 2010]  MARJAH, Afghanistan (AP) -- Elite Marine recon teams were dropped behind Taliban lines by helicopter Friday as the U.S.-led force stepped up operations to break resistance in the besieged insurgent stronghold of Marjah.

HardwareAbout two dozen Marines were inserted before dawn into an area where skilled Taliban marksmen are known to operate, an officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Other squads of Marines and Afghans, marching south in a bid to link up with Marine outposts there and expand their territory, came under sniper fire and rocket attacks by midday. The rattle of machine-gun fire and the thud of mortars echoed nearby.

The Marjah offensive, now in its seventh day, is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and a test of President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.


A NATO statement said troops were still meeting "some resistance" from insurgents who engage them in firefights, but homemade bombs remain the key threat to allied and Afghan forces.

Six coalition troops were killed Thursday, NATO said, making it the deadliest day since the offensive began. The death toll so far is 11 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. Britain's Defense Ministry said two British soldiers were among those killed Thursday.

No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

As U.S. and Afghan troops moved south Friday, they continued to sweep through houses, searching for bombs and questioning residents.

One man came forward to the Marines and revealed a Taliban position a mile (two kilometers) away. The man, who was not identified for security reasons, said he was angry because insurgents had earlier taken over his home.

He gave U.S. forces detailed information, saying more than a dozen Taliban fighters were waiting to ambush troops there. The position was rigged with dozens of homemade bombs and boobytraps, he said.

Other people interviewed said some Taliban fighters in the area were non-Afghan.

"Some of them are from here. Some are from Pakistan. Some are from other countries, but they don't let us come close to them so I don't know where they are from," said poppy farmer Mohammad Jan, 35, a father of four.

Brig. Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, who is in charge of Afghan troops in the offensive, said security responsibilities in a few sections of town, including the main bazaar, had been turned over to Afghan police, although they will continue to get assistance from Afghan soldiers.

"Police in the area need support from ANA (Afghan National Army) all the time," he said.

Ghori said five suspected militants who had stashed Afghan army and police uniforms in their homes had been arrested. They were handed over to intelligence services, he said. Infiltration of police and army ranks by insurgents has been a constant concern.

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U.S. and Afghan troops encountered skilled sharpshooters and better-fortified Taliban positions Thursday, indicating that insurgent resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling center was far from crushed.

A Marine general said Thursday that U.S. and Afghan allied forces controlled the main roads and markets in town, but fighting raged elsewhere in the southern farming town.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, told The Associated Press that allied forces had taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centers in the town of 80,000 people about 360 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul.

"I'd say we control the spine" of the town, Nicholson said as he inspected the Marines' front line in the north of the dusty, mud-brick town. "We're where we want to be."

British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, told reporters in Washington via a video hookup that he expects it could take another 30 days to secure Marjah.

Throughout Thursday, U.S. Marines pummeled insurgents with mortars, sniper fire and missiles as gunbattles intensified. Taliban fighters fired back with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, some of the fire far more accurate than Marines have faced in other Afghan battles.

The increasingly accurate sniper fire -- and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomb threats -- indicated that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the town, Nicholson said.

Under NATO's "clear, hold, build" strategy, the allies plan to secure the area and then rush in a civilian Afghan administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population in preventing the Taliban from returning.

[Associated Press; By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU]

Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Helmand province and Tini Tran in Kabul contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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