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