The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (Nato) most ambitious offensive against Taliban strongholds in Helmand province entered its second day on Sunday, with officials claiming 27 insurgents killed.
More than 6,000 American, Afghan and British troops came in fast early on Saturday, overwhelming most immediate resistance. They seized crucial positions across the Taliban stronghold of Marja on Saturday, encountering intense but sporadic fighting as they began the treacherous ordeal of house-to-house searches.
But as the troops began to fan out on searches, fighting with Taliban insurgents grew in frequency and intensity across a wide area.
The pattern suggested that the hardest fighting lay in the days to come.
One American and one British Marine were reported killed by small-arms fire, but none from the Afghan Army, whose soldiers make up the majority of those in the fight.
Three American soldiers were killed and seven wounded when they were attacked by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle during a foot patrol in neighbouring Kandahar Province. A second British soldier was killed by a homemade bomb in southern Afghanistan in a blast unrelated to the operation in Marja.
Nato officials said that no civilian casualties had been reported. In the chaos, the claim was impossible to verify.
American commanders said the troops had achieved every first-day objective. That included advancing into the city itself and seizing intersections, government buildings and one of the city’s main bazaars in the centre of town.
Some Marines held meetings with local Afghans almost immediately to reassure them and to ask for help in finding Taliban and hidden bombs.
Mohammed Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand Province’s governor, said Afghan and Nato forces had set up 11 outposts across Marja and two in the neighbouring town of Nad Ali. “We now occupy all the strategic points in the area,” he said.
From those posts, Marines and soldiers began to go on patrols, searching door to door for weapons and fighters. This phase of the operation, considered the most dangerous, is expected to last at least five days.
The invasion of Marja is the largest military operation of its kind here since the American-backed war began eight years ago.
With inputs from DPA