US, Afghan forces push deeper into Marjah

US and Afghan troops battle insurgents as violence erupts across the Taliban haven of Marjah on the third day of a major offensive.

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MARJAH, AFGHANISTAN // Insurgent sniper teams battled US Marines and Afghan troops across the Taliban haven of Marjah, as several major gun battles erupted across the town today on the third day of a major offensive to reclaim the extremist southern heartland. Multiple firefights in different locations were taxing the ability of the coalition forces to provide enough air support to help cover the advance as Nato forces forged deeper through town, moving through suspected insurgent neighbourhoods, the US Marines said.

In the northern part of Marjah, an armoured column came under fire from at least three separate sniper teams, slowing down its progress. One of the teams came within 50 metres and started firing. Troops braced for the estimated 4 kilometre march to link up with US and Afghan troops who had been air-dropped into town. A day earlier, small squads of Taliban snipers initiated several gun battles throughout the day in an attempt to draw coalition forces into a larger ambush. The massive offensive involving some 15,000 US, Afghan, British troops is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

However, the mission faced a setback yesterday when two US rockets slammed into a home outside Marjah, killing 12 civilians. Nato said today that the rockets missed their target by about 600 metres, after earlier stating that the rockets missed their target by just 300 metres. During a briefing in Lashkar Gar yesterday, Afghan interior minister Atmar said that nine civilians and two or three insurgents were among those killed. The civilian deaths were a major blow to Nato and Afghan efforts to win the support of residents in the Marjah area, a Taliban logistical centre and a base for their lucrative opium trade that finances the insurgency. Before the offensive began on Saturday, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai had pleaded for the Afghan and foreign commanders to be "seriously careful for the safety of civilians."

The top Nato commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, apologised to President Hamid Karzai for "this tragic loss of life: and suspended use of the sophisticated High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, pending "a thorough review of this incident," Nato said. The rockets were fired by a HIMARS at insurgents who attacked US and Afghan forces, wounding one American and one Afghan, Nato said in a statement. Instead, the projectiles veered 300 metres off target and blasted a house in the And Ali district, which includes Marjah, Nato added.

Inside Marjah, sporadic firefights increased by midday as small sniper teams engaged US Marines in heavy gunfire. "Literally every time we stand up, we take rounds," warned one Marine over the radio. Marines said their ability to fight back has been tightly constrained by strict new rules of engagement that make their job more difficult and dangerous. Under the rules, troops cannot fire at people unless they commit a hostile act or show hostile intent.

"I understand the reason behind it, but it's so hard to fight a war like this," said Lance Corp Travis Anderson, 20, from Altoona, Iowa. "They're using our rules of engagement against us," he said, stating that his platoon had repeatedly seen men dropping their guns into ditches before walking away to melt among civilians. Allied officials have reported two coalition deaths so far - one American and one Briton, who were both killed Saturday.

Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed in the offensive. In unrelated incidents in southern Afghanistan, Nato said two service members died yesterday - one from small-arms fire and the other from a roadside bomb explosion. The international force did not disclose their nationalities, but the British defence ministry reported that a British soldier died yesterday of wounds suffered in an explosion.

* AP