U.S. and Afghan forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centers of the Taliban haven of Marjah, the top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan said Thursday, though he added that pockets of insurgents remain.
"I'd say we control the spine" of the town, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson told The Associated Press as he inspected the Marines' front line in the north of the town. "We're where we want to be."
After six days of a massive NATO offensive, Marines and their Afghan counterparts succeeded in their initial military objectives, he said: They now control all access points into town, the government centers and the main markets, and the key roads that crisscross the 80-square-mile (200-square-kilometer) area.
As Nicholson spoke, bursts of heavy machine gunfire in the near distance highlighted that insurgents still hold terrain less than a mile (kilometer) away.
"Everyday, there's not a dramatic change, it's steady," he said, noting that fighting continues to erupt.
The offensive is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a test of President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.
Five NATO service members and one Afghan soldier have been killed since the attack on the town, the hub of the Taliban's southern logistics and drug-smuggling network, began Saturday. NATO had previously reported six deaths, but said Thursday that one death had mistakenly been reported twice.
U.S. Marines pummeled insurgents with mortars, sniper fire and missiles as gunbattles intensified during the day. Enemy fighters fired back with rocket-propelled grenades.
Senior Marine officers say they have intelligence showing that over 120 insurgents have been killed since the fighting began, but Nicholson would not discuss that number.
However, "several hundred" fighters have probably regrouped and will try resist the Marines' advance against their strongholds in the coming days, he added.
The increasingly accurate fire from snipers — and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomber threats — indicates that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the city, Nicholson said.
But there were also pockets of calm Thursday. Their donkeys laden down with their belongings, several families could be seen coming back to their homes in a sign that some civilians believed the fighting is over in zones secured by NATO troops.
Several storekeepers reopened their shops in the bullet-riddled bazaar in the northern part of town, as customers lined up to buy goods for the first time in nearly a week.
Once the town of 80,000 people is secure, NATO plans to rush in civil administrators to revive schools, health clinics and electricity in hopes of winning public support to discourage the Taliban from returning.
But in a sign of the difficulty that NATO faces in trying to reverse the rise of militants, eight members of the Afghan National Police on Wednesday night defected to the Taliban, a police official said.
Eight policemen in central Wardak province's Chak district abandoned their posts and joined with Taliban militants in the area, Mirza Khan, deputy provincial police chief, said Thursday. He said one of the policemen had previous ties with the Taliban. The incident is under investigation.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed the defection, saying, "These policemen came on their own and told us they want to join with the Taliban. Now they are with us."
As Marines and Afghan soldiers press their offensive in Marjah, they have been forced to hold their fire because insurgents are shooting from inside or next to mud-walled compounds where civilians are present — and restraint slows their advance.
On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, Nicholson's Afghan counterpart, condemned the insurgents' use of women and children as human shields during the fighting.
"We've seen children terrified, crying in front of doorways," just before a Taliban shoots from behind them, Ghori said. "It's outrageous."
NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have died.
Associated Press writers Tini Tran and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.
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