Thursday, February 25, 2010

Afghan flag hoisted over Marjah for the second time

Times Online

Helmand’s governor called on people to “come home” today as officials hoisted an Afghan flag over a besieged town in Marjah for the second time in as many weeks.

The area's main settlement was almost completely abandoned when General Moheedin Ghori raised the national colours in Loya Charahi, which means big square, last week. Since then pockets of diehard militants, snipers and roadside bombs have stalled the coalition’s advance.

Local elders said around 80 per cent of the densely populated farmland was under government control this morning, as Afghan dignitaries went through a flag raising ritual for the second time.

The commander of US Marines in southern Afghanistan, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, said it was a “very historical day” at the ceremony to mark the official start of government rule. Tight security on the ground was an indication that the rural area has yet to come under complete control of the joint Nato-Afghan force. An Al Jazeera reporter in Marjah said that only hours before the flag-raising ceremony, improvised bombs planted by the Taleban were discovered in the main market.

Marjah – canal irrigated farmland home to around 80,000 people – has been ruled by the Taleban for almost two years. Officials said at least 20,000 people have fled the area and many more are still too afraid to leave their homes. But eyewitnesses said there were more than 200 locals there to witness this morning’s ceremony.

"The governor told the people to come back to their houses,” said Gulab Mangal’s official spokesman, Daoud Ahmadi. “Now Marjah is safe for them.”

Mr Ahamdi said locals reiterated fears that the Marines would leave, letting the Taleban insurgents filter back in. “The governor told them we are here for ever,” he said.

Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a local tribal leader, said most of the fighting was confined to an area in the north of Marjah, on the border with Nad-e Ali, where British forces have also been involved in Operation Moshtarak, which means Togetherness.

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