Thursday, August 13, 2009

US Marines in Afghanistan storm Taleban town in second Helmand offensive - Times

Hundreds of US troops stormed a Taleban-controlled town in Afghanistan yesterday in a new offensive to drive out militants before next week’s presidential election.

Amid heavy exchanges of fire, 400 Marines, with 100 Afghan soldiers, killed at least seven militants as they pushed into the mountains of Dabaneh, 10km south of Nawzad, a Helmand town held by insurgents since 2006. Harrier jets flew regular sorties over the area, dropping flares in “show-of-force” low passes designed to intimidate the Taleban.

US commanders said that Operation Eastern Resolve II was designed to push the Taleban out of the area and cut their supply lines. The battle was intense yesterday as militants fought the Marines for eight hours with small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades after US forces launched a dawn air assault behind their lines. Some US officers told reporters they suspected that the insurgents must have known of the impending attack, such was the ferocity of their resistance.

An earlier operation, Eastern Resolve I, failed to dislodge the Taleban.

US commanders have placed extreme restrictions on the use of air power in an attempt to halt civilian casualties, which are blamed for waning Afghan support for Western troops.

US forces estimated that up to ten Taleban fighters died during the day. It was also reported that 30kg of opium was recovered during the battle. The Taleban in Helmand acquire much of their funding from the huge narcotics industry in the province.

“I think this has the potential to be a watershed,” said Captain Zachary Martin, the commander of Golf Company of 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines, which led the assault. “In the long term it could have tremendous effects for the whole province.”

Nawzad is the second-largest town in Helmand, home to 30,000 inhabitants. Almost the entire population has long since fled the area because of the relentless fighting since the town was attacked by the Taleban in 2006 and British troops established a base there.

As US forces pressed forward into Taleban-held territory barely a mile from the base in Nawzad, they came under fire from a heavy machinegun. The militants also brought up a truck from which to launch rockets, one of which narrowly missed a US Humvee vehicle. “Just a few metres further and I’d be dead,” said Corporal Joshua Jackson, 23, from Copley, Ohio, after one round landed near by.

Reporters embedded with the US Marines described how the Taleban stood and fought, displaying unusually high levels of marksmanship. “This is a Taleban home down here, so for once they’re not running,” said Lance Corporal Garett Davidson, 24.

The fighting moved through dense areas of buildings and compounds. More than 100 civilians had been seen leaving the area shortly after dawn.

After being attacked by a number of rockets the Marines responded with a missile strike.

“We were tracking these individuals. They were there . . . and then boom, and they weren’t there,” Captain Martin said.

In neighbouring Kandahar province, two Associated Press journalists were seriously wounded when a roadside bomb hit the US military vehicle in which they were travelling. The award-winning Spanish photographer Emilio Morenatti, 40, lost a foot in the incident, which also broke several bones of the Indonesian news cameraman Andi Jatmiko, 44.

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