Sniper teams attacked U.S. Marines and Afghan troops across the Taliban haven of Marjah, as several gun battles erupted Monday on the third day of a major offensive to seize the extremists' southern heartland.
Multiple firefights broke out in different neighborhoods as American and Afghan forces worked to clear out pockets of insurgents and push slowly beyond parts of the town they have claimed. With gunfire coming from several directions all day long, troops managed to advance only 500 yards (meters) deeper as they fought off small squads of Taliban snipers.
"There's still a good bit of the land still to be cleared," said Capt. Abraham Sipe, a Marine spokesman. "We're moving at a very deliberative pace."
The massive offensive in the Marjah area — the largest Taliban stronghold and a key opium trafficking hub — involves about 15,000 U.S., Afghan and British troops and is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
On Monday, Afghan military officials gave a more optimistic view of the progress being made, with Brig. Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai saying Afghan and NATO forces have largely contained the insurgents and succeeded in gaining trust from residents, who have pointed out mine locations.
"Today there is no major movement of the enemy. South of Marjah they are very weak. There has been low resistance. Soon we will have Marjah cleared of enemies," Zazai said at a briefing in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand province. He added that only three Afghan troops had been injured.
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said he expected some insurgent fighters had already fled the area in advance of the offensive, possibly heading to the Pakistan border.
The enemy "had ample time to flee. Our intention was known to both our public and the enemy," he said.
However, the mission faced a setback on Sunday when two U.S. rockets slammed into a home outside Marjah, killing 12 civilians. NATO said Monday that the rockets missed their target by about 600 meters, or about a third of a mile. NATO had earlier said the rockets missed their target by just 300 meters.
Six children were among the dead from the rocket strike, a NATO military official confirmed Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information had not been formally released.
British Chief of the Defense Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup called the off-target strike a "very serious setback" in efforts to win the support of local communities.
"This operation ... is not about battling the Taliban. It is about protecting the local population and you don't protect them when you kill them," he said in an interview with the BBC.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had pleaded with NATO and Afghan forces to be cautious about civilian casualties ahead of the offensive, has called for a thorough investigation into the airstrike.
Differing accounts have emerged about the details. On Monday, Afghan Interior Minister Atmar said at the briefing in Lashkar Gah that nine civilians and two or three insurgents were among those killed, suggesting that insurgents were firing at troops from a civilian home.
"The reality is this ... the enemy did capture some civilians in their house and they were firing at our forces from this house. Unfortunately our forces didn't know that civilians were living in that house," he said.
The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, apologized for "this tragic loss of life" and suspended use of the sophisticated rocket system pending a thorough review.
The rockets were fired by the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, at insurgents who had attacked U.S. and Afghan forces, wounding one American and one Afghan, NATO said. However, the projectiles veered off target and blasted the home in northern Nad Ali district, which includes Marjah, NATO added.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said the president "is very upset about what happened" and has been "very seriously conveying his message" of restraint "again and again."
Inside Marjah, sporadic firefights increased by midday. One armored column came under fire from at least three separate sniper teams, slowing its progress. One of the teams came within 155 feet (50 meters) and started firing.
"It's a pretty busy day but we expected that because we are penetrating," said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, referring to a half-dozen major gun battles throughout town.
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 killed Saturday. Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed in the offensive.
Separately in southern Afghanistan, NATO said two service members died Sunday — one from small-arms fire and the other from a roadside bomb explosion. Both were British, according to the British government.
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