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Marines hand ex-Taliban stronghold to Afghans

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Marines handed over control of a former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan to the Afghan army and their British mentors on Monday after killing more than 400 militants in a four-month operation, the NATO-led force said.

A U.S. Marine, from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, stands in front of house burned by Taliban fighters during heavy close range battle near the town of Garmsir in Helmand Province of Afghanistan May 19, 2008. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

The northern part of Garmsir district in Helmand province, known as the snake’s head for its appearance on a map, served as a transit and logistics hub for Taliban fighters.

About 2,400 Marines moved into the insurgent-held area along the Helmand river in late April and seized control after 35 days of intense fighting.

“During these 35 days, the Marines were in 170 engagements in which they caused severe insurgent casualties, more than 400 according to the Helmand governor, and zero civilian casualties,” the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement.

Mounting civilian casualties, especially in U.S.-led coalition air strikes, have fuelled public anger across Afghanistan and driven a wedge between the government and its Western backers.

By restoring stability in the Garmsir area, the Marines allowed many Afghans to return to the district, some of them after an absence of two years, the ISAF statement said.

The main market and the hospital in Garmsir have been reopened, the canal system evaluated for repairs and the first shura, or council, held in three years, it said. Schools have also been repaired.

“Coming here I told the Marines that wherever we went had to be better for us having been there. Today I can say we have accomplished that,” said Colonel Peter Petronzio, commanding officer of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

However, violence has surged across Afghanistan this year, including in Helmand, with some 2,500 people killed, up to 1,000 of them civilians.

On Monday, six civilians were killed in a landmine blast in southern Zabul province, police said.

The Afghan army’s 4th battalion, helped by British forces, is now responsible for maintaining peace in Garmsir.

A British commander said last month the two forces would ensure that the gains made by the Marines in Garmsir would not be lost after fears were raised that the Taliban could be lying low, waiting for the Marines to leave.

The Marines, who were deployed to Afghanistan to make up for shortfalls in troops that Washington failed to persuade other NATO allies to fill, will head home, the ISAF said.

Editing by Paul Tait