MARJAH (Reuters) - NATO rockets killed 12 Afghan civilians on Sunday, the second day of an offensive designed to impose Afghan government authority on one of the last big Taliban strongholds in the country’s most violent province.
The assault, one of NATO’s biggest against the Taliban since the war began in 2001, tests President Barack Obama’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to seize insurgent-held areas before a planned 2011 troop drawdown. NATO apologized for the civilian casualties that also damaged efforts to win local support.
A day after the attack started with waves of helicopters ferrying troops into the town of Marjah and the nearby Nad Ali district, Marines came under intense fire in the heart of Marjah as they sought to root out pockets of insurgents.
The United States’ top military officer on Sunday said the assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province had gotten “off to a good start.”
“It’s actually very difficult to predict (the end),” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a visit to Israel. “We have from a planning standpoint talked about a few weeks, but I don’t know that.”
The offensive has been flagged for weeks, to persuade Taliban fighters to leave so the area can be recaptured with minimal damage or loss of civilian life, in the hope that the 100,000 people there will welcome the Afghan administration.
“This is not focused on the Taliban, and it is a strategy not just to clear the area but to hold it and then build right behind it so that there is a civilian component here and there is a local governance,” Mullen said.
Despite the best efforts, two rockets fired by NATO troops missed militants firing on them, instead slamming into a house and killing 12 people. Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed sadness and said the victims were members of the same family.
“Upon hearing the news, Hamid Karzai immediately ordered an investigation as he had previously ordered that the operation should be carefully done to prevent innocent civilians being killed,” a statement from the president’s office said.
NATO commander U.S. General Stanley McChrystal in a statement extended apologies to Karzai, and said the use of that type of rocket had been suspended pending review. The number of civilians killed by NATO has declined since he took command in mid-2009.
Taliban fighters unleashed automatic gunfire at NATO helicopters flying in and out Marjah town, and fired on Marines during a ceremony to raise the Afghan flag over the compound to mark progress in the offensive.
Captain Ryan Sparks compared the intensity of the firefights to the U.S.-led offensive against militants in the Iraqi town of Fallujah in 2004.
“In Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we’re coming in from different locations and working toward the center, so we’re taking fire from all angles,” Sparks said.
U.S. forces fired mortar rounds against a Taliban position, and the militants fired a round back which landed in the Marines’ compound but failed to explode. The Marines responded by firing rockets at the suspected militant position.
NATO forces had advised civilians not to leave their homes, advice human rights groups say gives the coalition additional legal and moral responsibility to avoid heavy fighting that could harm innocent people.
Most of the population has stayed put. Some residents said the Taliban had heavily booby-trapped Marjah. It was unclear how many Taliban stayed to fight.
“There is no Taliban here now, they have already fled. Now this area is calm and stable,” villager Abdul Raziq told Reuters.
Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said on the group’s website it had launched direct attacks on NATO-led troops in several parts of Marjah and had surrounded some in one area.
Marjah has long been a breeding ground for insurgents and lucrative opium poppy cultivation, which Western countries say funds the insurgency. The scale of the problem was glaring at the compound taken over by the Marines.
Bags of drugs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars had been discovered, as were sacks of chemicals capable of producing 100 pounds of explosives, said Tim Coderre, a civilian adviser to Marine officials.
Also on Sunday, the Taliban released a video of two French journalists kidnapped on December 30, showing them pleading for their release. They were on assignment for France 3 television when they were kidnapped in Kapisa province, north of Kabul.
“We have been held prisoner for three weeks and we want the French government to hold negotiations with these people so that we can be released as quickly as possible,” one of the hostages says in the video.
France 3 had no immediate comment, while the French Foreign Ministry again condemned the kidnapping.
“State services are fully mobilized since December 30 and are doing their best to obtain the liberation of our two compatriots,” the ministry said.
Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Bryson Hull in Kabul, Ismail Sameem in Kandahar; Astrid Wendlandt in Paris and Ori Lewis in Tel Aviv; Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Michael Georgy