Thursday, February 11, 2010

300 families flee Afghan town ahead of offensive

Associated Press

About 300 families have already fled a southern Afghan town ahead of a major U.S.-Afghan offensive planned on a key Taliban stronghold, provincial officials said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a Taliban spokesman vowed that insurgent forces in and near Marjah in southern Helmand province are ready "to do jihad, to sacrifice their lives" in the upcoming battle, which will serve as a significant test of the new U.S. strategy for turning back the Taliban.

In Brussels, a NATO spokesman said the Taliban garrison in Marjah had the option to surrender, leave or fight. "They are well advised to take up options one or two," spokesman James Appathurai said.

"The area which is the focus of this operation has been known for years as an insurgent stronghold. It is actively defended and will require a large military operation to clear," he said.

No date for the main attack has been announced but all signs indicate it will come soon. It will be the first major military offensive since President Barack Obama announced last December that he was sending 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan.

Daoud Ahmadi, spokesman for Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal, said some 300 families — an estimated 1,800 people — have already moved out of Marjah in recent weeks and days to the capital of Lashkar Gah, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) northeast, where they are living with relatives or in government-sponsored shelters.

About 60 families are living in a school, which has been converted into a temporary shelter stocked with tents, blankets, food and non-food items, he said. The other 240 families are living with relatives in the area, he said.

Ahmadi said preparations have been made to receive more refugees if necessary. Afghan families have an average of six members, according to private relief groups.

"All these things have been prepared by the governor's office and disaster department," he said.

The U.S. goal is to quickly retake control of Marjah, a farming community and major opium-production center, from Taliban forces. That would enable the Afghan government to re-establish a presence, bringing security, electricity, clean water and other public services to the estimated 80,000 inhabitants.

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