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US Marines push deeper into southern Afghan towns

world Updated: Jul 04, 2009 10:59 IST

AP
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US Marines pushed deeper into Taliban areas of southern Afghanistan, seeking to cut insurgent supply lines and win over local elders on the second day of the biggest US military operation here since the American-led invasion of 2001. On the other side of the border, US missiles struck a Pakistani Taliban militant training center and communications center, killing 17 people and wounding nearly 30, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

Both US operations were aimed at what President Barack Obama considers as the biggest dangers in the region: a resurgent Taliban-led insurgency allied with Al-Qaida that threatens both nuclear-armed Pakistan and the US-backed government in Afghanistan.

The 4,000-strong US force met little resistance Friday as troops fanned out into villages in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, although one Marine was killed and several others were wounded the day before, US officials said.

Despite minimal contact, the Marines could see militants using flashlights late Thursday to signal one another about American troop movements.

Military spokesman Capt Bill Pelletier said the goal of the Helmand operation was not simply to kill Taliban fighters but to win over the local population.

Marines also hope to cut the routes used by militants to funnel weapons, ammunition and fighters from Pakistan to the Taliban, which mounted an increasingly violent insurgency since its hard-line Islamist government was toppled in 2001 by an international coalition.

As Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," entered its second day, Marines took control of the district centers of Nawa and Garmser, and negotiated entry into Khan Neshin, the capital of Rig district, Pelletier said.

In one village near Nawa, the atmosphere was tense. "When we asked if they had a village elder or mullah for the American commander to talk to, the answer was no," said Capt. Drew Schoenmaker, a Marine company commander. "It's fear of reprisal. Fear and intimidation is one thing the enemy does very well." Taking territory from the Taliban has always proved easier than holding it. The challenge is especially great in Helmand because it is a center of Afghanistan's thriving opium production, and drug profits feed both the insurgency and corrupt government officials.

Also on Friday, US troops continued looking for an American soldier believed captured by insurgents, Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo said. The soldier and three Afghans with him went missing on Tuesday in the eastern Paktika province. There was no immediate public claim of responsibility from any insurgent group.

Also on Friday, Russia announced that it will allow the US to ship weapons across its territory to Afghanistan, providing Washington an alternative route to supply its forces in the landlocked country.