NATO, Afghan troops push deeper into Marjah

NATO and Afghan troops continued pushing deeper on Monday into the town of Marjah in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

NATO and Afghan troops continued pushing deeper on Monday into the town of Marjah in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan as the military offensive entered its third day.

A member of the F Company (Fire Support) 1 Royal Welsh takes position during Operation Moshtarak on Feb. 13 near Marjah. ((Ministry of Defence, Staff Sgt. Mark Jones/Associated Press))

The goal of the offensive — dubbed Operation Moshtarak — is to replace the Taliban with Afghan security forces and government officials, who are ready to move in behind the assault.

"Afghan generals involved in the operation have said that they believe the insurgents have really been beating a sort of tactical retreat," Jerome Starkey, a journalist for the Times, told CBC News from Helmand.

"Nonetheless, there are still pockets of resistance, particularly in the southern tip of Marjah where the insurgents are continuing to battle Afghan forces and U.S marines," he said.

The U.S. marines said multiple gunfights broke out Monday as insurgent snipers targeted the advancing troops.

The sniper attacks slowed the progress of the offensive to a gain of only about 450 metres.

There's still a good bit of the land still to be cleared," said Capt. Abraham Sipe, a marine spokesman.  "We're moving at a very deliberative pace."

Afghan Brig.-Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai said the insurgents were mostly contained, and added that local residents had been pointing out mine locations to troops.

"Today there is no major movement of the enemy. South of Marjah they are very weak. There has been low resistance. Soon we will have Marjah cleared of enemies," Zazai said during a briefing in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar believes some insurgents fled the area prior to the offensive, possibly heading toward the Pakistan border.

Civilians killed

Also Monday, NATO said an airstrike in Kandahar province killed five Afghanistan civilians.

NATO said a patrol of NATO and Afghan soldiers saw people digging along a path in the Zhari district, and mistakenly concluded they were planting an improvised explosive device.

Two Afghan civilians were wounded in the airstrike.

On Feb. 14, 12 civilians died when two NATO-fired rockets missed their targets. Those civilians were killed in the Nad Ali district, one of the areas near Marjah.

With files from The Associated Press