U.S. Marines and Afghan troops slogged through bomb-laden fields Thursday to clear the last pockets of insurgents from the southern Taliban haven of Marjah, while vegetable markets resumed business in other parts of town.
The Marines' progress was slowed by difficult terrain with no roads, few tracks and many hidden mines, but there was no gunfire by mid-morning. Several armored vehicles fell into irrigation canals while others were damaged by roadside bombs.
The last couple days have been relatively calm, with limited engagement by insurgents, as troops secured areas they've already taken and moved into position to tackle these final insurgents holdouts.
NATO said in a statement that while there are still occasional gunfights in town, the number of residents returning has increased in recent days and shops have opened to sell telephones and computers alongside fresh fruits and vegetables.
The mass assault in southern Helmand province, with 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops, is the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001. NATO's strategy is to rout Taliban militants from a town that had served as a logistical base and drug trafficking hub, restore the Afghan government presence, and rush in public services in a bid to win over the confidence of local communities.
In a sign that NATO's push to win over the population may be gaining traction, bomb tips from residents have increased by nearly 50 percent, the alliance said.
As the offensive closes in on its second week, 13 NATO troops have been killed and three Afghan soldiers, according to military officials. Eighty NATO troops have been wounded, along with eight Afghans.
At least 28 civilians have been killed, including 13 children, according to the Afghan human rights commission.
The civilian toll has raised fears that NATO may lose the support of the population even as it drives out the Taliban. The deaths come even though NATO has said its priority is protecting the civilian population and has adopted strict rules to prevent casualties.
A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry said that both the Afghan government and NATO troops realized they had to be realistic and accept that there would be civilian deaths.
"Preventing civilian casualties is our biggest challenge," Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi told reporters in Kabul. "You should not expect zero casualties, either from our side or from the international forces. That will only happen when the fighting is over. And we are all trying to make that happen.
NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, speaking alongside Azimi, urged Afghans to recognize that international troops are putting themselves in greater danger in order to try to protect civilians.
"We are going beyond the laws of armed conflict by increasing our risk," Tremblay said.
A day earlier, more than 100 Marines and their Afghan counterparts began their push into a northern Marjah neighborhood they say is the last significant pocket of Taliban insurgents in town.
About 100 fighters are believed to have regrouped into the 28-square-mile (45-square-kilometer) area known as Kareze, according to commanders with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment.
In the past week, Marines have come under heavy fire each time they skirted the zone, and several well-trained snipers have been spotted in the densely protected area, with bunkers and sniper positions.
But instead of the stiff resistance they expected, the troops did not hear a single shot as they moved into the area.
Some Afghans who were fleeing the neighborhood told them that Taliban militants had told them to get out because they were planning a large attack. But others who stayed in their homes said they hadn't seen a militant in days.
A Marine spokesman said Wednesday was the first day there were no gunbattles inside Marjah, though the previous two days had also been relatively calm.
"It's promising," Capt. Abe Sipe said. But he added that fighting will likely spike as the troops move into final pockets of fighters.
"There's still a fair bit of clearing," Sipe said. "We by no means think that this is over."
Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed to this report from Kabul.
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