U.S., Afghan troops draw fire, ring Tal­iban strong­hold in ad­vance of of­fen­sive

Cape Breton Post - - Classifieds -

NEAR MAR­JAH, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. and Afghan forces ringed the Tal­iban strong­hold of Mar­jah on Thurs­day, seal­ing off es­cape routes and set­ting the stage for what is be­ing de­scribed as the big­gest of­fen­sive of the nine-year war.

Tal­iban de­fend­ers re­peat­edly fired rock­ets and mor­tars at units poised in fox­holes along the edge of the town, ap­par­ently try­ing to lure NATO forces into skir­mishes be­fore the big at­tack.

“ They’re try­ing to draw us in,” said Capt. Joshua Win­frey, 30, of Tulsa, Okla., com­man­der of Lima Com­pany, 3rd Bat­tal­ion, 6th Marines.

Up to 1,000 mil­i­tants are be­lieved holed up in Mar­jah, a key Tal­iban lo­gis­tics base and cen­tre of the lu­cra­tive opium poppy trade. But the big­gest threats are likely to be the land mines and bombs hid­den in the roads and fields of the farm­ing com­mu­nity, 380 miles (610 kilo­me­tres) south­west of Kabul.

The pre­cise date for the at­tack has been kept se­cret. U.S. of­fi­cials have sig­nalled for weeks they planned to seize Mar­jah, a town of about 80,000 peo­ple in Hel­mand prov­ince and the big­gest com­mu­nity in south­ern Afghanistan un­der Tal­iban con­trol.

NATO of­fi­cials say the goal is to seize the town quickly and reestab­lish Afghan gov­ern­ment au­thor­ity, bring­ing pub­lic ser­vices in hopes of winning sup­port of the towns­peo­ple once the Tal­iban are gone. Hun­dreds of Afghan sol­diers were to join U.S. Marines in the at­tack to em­pha­size the Afghan role in the op­er­a­tion.

A Tal­iban spokesman dis­missed the sig­nif­i­cance of Mar­jah, say­ing the NATO op­er­a­tion was “more pro­pa­ganda than mil­i­tary ne­ces­sity.”

Nev­er­the­less, the spokesman, Mo­hammed Yusuf, said in a di­a­logue on the Tal­iban Web site that the in­sur­gents would strike the at­tack­ers with ex­plo­sives and hi­tand-run tac­tics, ac­cord­ing to a sum­mary by the SITE In­tel­li­gence Group, which mon­i­tors mil­i­tant In­ter­net traf­fic.

In prepa­ra­tion for the of­fen­sive, a U.S.-Afghan force led by the U.S. Army’s 5th Stryker Bri­gade moved south from Lashkar Gah and linked up Thurs­day with Marines on the north­ern edge of Mar­jah, clos­ing off a main Tal­iban es­cape route. Marines and Army sol­diers fired col­ored smoke grenades to show each other that they were friendly forces.

U.S. and Afghan forces have now fin­ished their de­ploy­ment along the main road in and out of Mar­jah, leav­ing the Tal­iban no way out ex­cept across bleak, open desert — where they could eas­ily be spot­ted.

The Army’s ad­vance was slowed as U.S. and Afghan sol­diers cleared the thicket of mines and bombs hid­den in canals and along the roads and fought off ha­rass­ment at­tacks along the way by small bands of in­sur­gents. Two U.S. at­tack he­li­copters fired Hell­fire mis­siles at a com­pound near Mar­jah from where in­sur­gents had been fir­ing at the ad­vanc­ing Amer­i­cans. PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The Haitian judge de­cid­ing whether 10 U.S. mis­sion­ar­ies should face trial on charges of try­ing to take a bus­load of chil­dren out of the coun­try said Thurs­day he will rec­om­mend that they be re­leased pro­vi­sion­ally while the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues.

Judge Bernard Saint-Vil must now send his rec­om­men­da­tion to the pros­e­cu­tor, who may agree or ob­ject, but the judge has the fi­nal au­thor­ity to de­cide whether they stay in cus­tody or go free.

Saint-Vil said he was mak­ing his rec­om­men­da­tion a day af­ter ques­tion­ing the Amer­i­cans and hear­ing tes­ti­mony from par­ents who said they will­ingly gave their chil­dren to the Bap­tist mis­sion­ar­ies, be­liev­ing they would ed­u­cate and care for them.

“Af­ter lis­ten­ing to the fam­i­lies, I see the pos­si­bil­ity that they can all be re­leased,” Saint-Vil told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “I am rec­om­mend­ing that all 10 Amer­i­cans be re­leased.”

Later, Saint-Vil said he would rec­om­mend pro­vi­sional free­dom

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