Marjah offensive, Day 6: Taliban using `human shields`
Marjah: A US-led offensive in southern Afghanistan dragged into a sixth day on Thursday, with progress slowed by hidden bombs and what commanders say is the Taliban`s use of women and children as human shields.
The assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah is being keenly watched as the first major test of US President Barack Obama`s strategy to end eight years of war by driving out the hardline militia and reasserting government control.
About 15,000 Afghan, US and NATO troops are conducting Operation Mushtarak (Together) against about 400 to 1,000 Taliban fighters in what has been billed as the biggest assault since the 2001 US-led invasion.
The goal is to allow the Western-backed government to regain control in the opium-rich area and win support from locals, but the challenge is huge in a country where the militia is spread wide and government control weak.
An Afghan general said this week that Marjah and the Nad Ali district were almost under control, but officers from the battlefield paint a grim picture of Taliban hiding behind civilians and fighters booby-trapped roads and buildings.
"They have taken civilian people hostages," said General Mohaidin Ghori, the commander of the estimated 4,400 Afghan troops taking part in the operation in the drug-producing heartland of the southern province of Helmand.
"They put women and children on the roofs of homes and are firing from behind them," he said.
"People have come out of their homes and into a desert, without any food or water. We are living in very hard conditions," resident Abdul Rashid said.
Soldiers who entered Marjah with Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal on Wednesday said they saw wounded civilians caught in crossfire after Taliban fighters used their homes to engage the coalition forces.
Marjah is home to around 80,000 people and although Amnesty International has said about 10,000 civilians have fled, the rights group warned that thousands were trapped in the conflict zone.
"I myself saw lots of people who had been hit because they (militants) were firing from people`s homes and we were returning fire," said an Afghan soldier who gave his name as Ismatullah.
"But they were hit because (the militants) were firing from their homes and not letting them leave," he said.
Taliban spokesmen have denied using human shields -- but the evidence appears to be against them.
The cruel tactic, combined with the mines -- known as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices -- planted across vast swathes of the target zone, "have slowed the advance of our troops," Ghori said.
"Our units have control over Marjah. There is one problem which is a source of concern for us and has slowed our progress and that is IEDs and land mines," said General Shair Mohammad Zazai the southern military corp commander.
"The area is cultivated with IEDs. At this stage we are busy cleaning up the IEDs. There is no resistance against us in Marjah except some rare sporadic fire from roof tops but when we go to the area they disapear," he said.
In one case, rebels were seen firing from the window of a house packed with non-combatants, with a terrified crying child forced to stand in front of the compound, said an Afghan military report.
Afghan troops on Wednesday raised their flag over a badly damaged market in Marjah, a symbolic move given the lack of full control in town.
Although death tolls are impossible to confirm, 40 Taliban, six NATO soldiers and at least 12 civilians have been reported killed in the battle.
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