Marjah: Elite Marine recon teams were dropped behind Taliban lines by helicopter on Friday as the US-led force stepped up operations to break resistance in the besieged insurgent stronghold of Marjah.
About 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 Afghan forces began marching south in a bid to link up with Marine outposts there, meticulously searching compounds on the way. The 7-day-old Marjah offensive is the biggest since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan and a test of President Barack Obama`s strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.
Several residents 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.
A NATO statement said troops are still meeting "some resistance" by insurgents who engage them in firefights, but homemade bombs remain the key threat to allied and Afghan forces.
Six coalition troops were killed on 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 Defence Ministry said two British soldiers were among those killed on 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 authorised to release the information.
US and Afghan troops encountered skilled sharpshooters and better-fortified Taliban positions on Thursday, indicating that insurgent resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling centre was far from crushed.
A Marine general said on Thursday that US and Afghan allied forces control the main roads and markets in town, but fighting has raged elsewhere in the southern farming town. A British general said he expected it would take another month to secure area.