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Civilians Die in Afghan Offensive

NATO has confirmed that two rockets fired at militants during its offensive in Helmand, south Afghanistan, missed their target and killed 12 civilians.

Golnar Motevalli

Afghans attend a meeting with U.S. soldiers of Alpha Battery, 4th Brigade combat team, 1-508, 82nd parachute infantry regiment, near the town of Shah joy in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan, February 14, 2010. (Credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

rockets killed 12 Afghan civilians on Sunday, missing Taliban militants
attacking NATO and Afghan troops as they press ahead with a major
offensive that must win over the local population to succeed.

regrettable that in the course of our joint efforts, innocent lives
were lost. We extend our heartfelt sympathies and will ensure we do all
we can to avoid future incidents," NATO commander U.S. General Stanley
McChrystal said in a statement.

offensive, one of NATO's biggest against the Taliban since the Afghan
war began in 2001, comes at the start of a campaign to impose
government control on rebel-held areas before U.S. forces start a
planned 2011 withdrawal.

Marines came under intense fire on Sunday after taking over a building
in the heart of the last major Taliban bastion in Helmand province.

fighters unleashed automatic gunfire at NATO helicopters flying in and
out of the town of Marjah, and fired on Marines during a ceremony to
raise the Afghan flag over the compound to mark progress in the

Captain Ryan Sparks
compared the intensity of the fighting to the U.S.-led offensive
against militants in the Iraqi town of Fallujah in 2004.

Fallujah, it was just as intense. But there, we started from the north
and worked down to the south. In Marjah, we're coming in from different
locations and working toward the center, so we're taking fire from all
angles," Sparks said.


forces had advised civilians not to leave their homes, although they
have said they do not know whether the assault will lead to heavy

Heavy civilian
casualties could put them under pressure from human rights groups, who
say that since NATO has encouraged people to stay, it bears an
additional legal and moral responsibility to avoid heavy fighting that
would harm them.

Most of the population of the area, estimated at up to 100,000, has stayed put.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed sadness at the incident. He said a family was killed.

hearing the news, Hamid Karzai immediately ordered an investigation as
he had previously ordered that the operation should be carefully done
to prevent innocent civilians being killed," a statement from the
president's office said.

Fallujah, where massive U.S. firepower demolished the city and left
great bitterness against the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, the Marjah
assault aims to eliminate militants while building goodwill for Afghan
forces who will take over the area.


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has strongly emphasized precautions to avoid killing civilians, and the
number of civilians killed by NATO troops has declined since he took
command in mid-2009.

At the same
time, U.S. commanders are under pressure to achieve decisive military
gains this year to turn the tide in the war, before troops begin to

As the flag incident demonstrated, it will not be easy.

have always dreamed of raising the Afghanistan flag over Marjah," said
22-year-old Afghan soldier Almast Khan, before Marines protecting the
building started coming under fire.


forces fired mortar rounds against a Taliban position, and the
militants fired a round back which landed in the Marines' compound but
failed to explode. The Marines responded by firing rockets at the
suspected militant position.

spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said on the group's website it had
launched direct attacks on NATO-led troops in several parts of Marjah
and had surrounded some in one area.

has long been a breeding ground for insurgents and lucrative opium
poppy cultivation, which Western countries say funds the insurgency.
The scale of the problem was glaring at the compound taken over by the

Bags of drugs worth
hundreds of thousands of dollars had been discovered, as were sacks of
chemicals capable of producing 100 pounds of explosives, said Tim
Coderre, a civilian adviser to Marine officials.

commanders flagged the operation well before it kicked off, hoping to
persuade the Taliban to flee and thereby avoid a prolonged and
destructive fight that could anger residents.

it gave militants time to lay mines, booby-traps and improvised
explosives. NATO said troops had recovered 250 kg of ammonium nitrate,
used for making explosive, detonation cord and various other
bomb-making ingredients during searches.

15,000-troop NATO operation is named Mushtarak, or "together,"
suggesting that NATO and Afghan forces are determined to work closely
to restore stability to Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Ismail Sameem in Kandahar; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Louise IrelandBryson Hull)

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