Taliban defiant as Afghans flee ahead of assault

Taliban defiant as Afghans flee ahead of assault
# 09 February 2010 01:03 (UTC +04:00)
Baku – APA. NATO commanders urged the Taliban to surrender as troops dug in Monday for a major assault on a key insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan, sending thousands of residents fleeing, APA reports quoting AFP.
The Taliban remained defiant as civilians of the Marjah plain accused the militia, which is leading an eight-year insurgency, of massing fighters and arms for a bloody battle in Helmand province expected to start this week.
Taliban fighters "prefer to stay and fight," Yousuf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"Afghan and foreign forces have come to the Marjah area and our mujahedeen forces are also in the area firing rockets at them," he said.
The Marjah operation -- dubbed Mushtarak ("Together") -- is the biggest push since US President Barack Obama announced a new surge of troops to Afghanistan, and military officials say it is the biggest since the 2001 US-led invasion.
It is seen as pivotal to a new counter-insurgency strategy, which meshes military operations with the civil and political aims of establishing governance and security as the basis for development.
Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, called on the militants to lay down their arms, and said the aim of the operation was to "separate the insurgents from the population".
"From a strategic perspective it would be better but they are under very high instructions from their senior leadership to stay and fight, and they are still under the impression that they are winning," he said.
Frightened families were leaving Marjah, as provincial authorities set up reception centres and stockpiled food and tents for up to 10,000 people.
Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, head of the provincial department of refugees and repatriation, said more than 400 families, or 2,000-3,000 people had relocated and "people are still leaving the area".
"We have provided some 70 tents with the help of the international military and in Lashkar Gah we have set aside two schools to shelter people as they arrive," he said.
Shir Ali Khan, who arrived Monday in Lashkar Gah with 25 relatives, said he would keep his loved ones in the city until Marjah was safe.
"We left the area because lots of aircraft were flying over and lots of forces moving back and forth," he said.
But local officials sought to reassure people and prevent a mass exodus.
"Everything is OK," said Governor Habibullah of the Nad Ali district, where Marjah is located.
"We have organised local gatherings and described the objectives of these operations, and assured people they do not need to leave the area, that they will not be harmed in the upcoming operation," he said.
Thousands of foreign and Afghan troops have massed around the area in the central Helmand River valley to take on the Taliban in one of the last areas of the province where they hold sway.
Shadow structures, including courts that dispense rough justice, are operating in place of government institutions, officials said.
The Taliban have skillfully exploited a lack of public confidence in the Afghan government to spread their footprint across vast swathes of the country.
General Stanley McChrystal, commander of 113,000 US and NATO forces in the country -- where another 40,000 are to deploy by August -- has said the Marjah operation aims to push the Taliban out and re-establish government control.
The insurgency, now in its ninth year, has been concentrated on Helmand, and neighbouring Kandahar province, fertile agricultural regions where farmland has been transformed under insurgent control into poppy plantations.
Billions of dollars worth of opium and heroin help to fund the Taliban-led insurgency, which has the Marjah region in its grip.
Four NATO soldiers were killed in Afghanistan on Sunday -- two Swedes in the north and another two whose nationalities were not disclosed in the south.
The latest deaths took to 61 the number of foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan since the start of the year, according to an AFP count based on a tally kept by independent icasualties.org website.
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