MARJAH, Afghanistan – Elite Marine recon teams were dropped behind Taliban lines by helicopter Friday as the U.S.-led force escalated operations to break resistance in the besieged insurgent stronghold of Marjah.
As the major NATO offensive entered its seventh day, about two dozen Marines were inserted before dawn into an area where skilled Taliban marksmen are known to operate, an officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
Other squads of Marines and Afghans, marching south in a bid to link up with Marine outposts there and expand their territory, came under sniper fire and rocket attacks by midday. The rattle of machine-gun fire and the thud of mortars echoed nearby.
"We had a few companies engaged in firefights that lasted a few hours," said Marine spokesman Lt. Josh Diddams, who added that overall resistance appeared lighter than in previous days.
The Marjah 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.
A NATO statement said troops were still meeting "some resistance" from insurgents who engage them in firefights, but homemade bombs remain the key threat to allied and Afghan forces.
Six coalition troops were killed Thursday, NATO said, making it the deadliest day since the offensive began. The death toll so far is 11 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. Britain's Defense Ministry said two British soldiers were among those killed Thursday.
No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
As U.S. and Afghan troops moved south Friday, they continued to sweep through houses, searching for bombs and questioning residents.
One man came forward to the Marines and revealed a Taliban position a mile (1.6 kilometers) away. The man, who was not identified for security reasons, said he was angry because insurgents had earlier taken over his home.
He gave U.S. forces detailed information, saying more than a dozen Taliban fighters were waiting to ambush troops there. The position was rigged with dozens of homemade bombs and booby-traps, he said.
Other people interviewed said some Taliban fighters in the area were non-Afghan.
"Some of them are from here. Some are from Pakistan. Some are from other countries, but they don't let us come close to them so I don't know where they are from," said opium poppy farmer Mohammad Jan, 35, a father of four.
Marines also uncovered a row of machine gun bunkers alongside a canal where they suspect enemy fighters had been firing on them the previous day.
Located at a crossroads, the five newly abandoned bunkers, camouflaged under a layer of mud, aimed out across an open field. In the near distance, large stones had been set up to act as machine gun sights.
"These guys aren't doing anything new, but it's pretty much the good basics of defense," said Lt. Scott Holub, from Pasadena, Maryland.
Outside of Marjah, U.S. and Afghan troops, backed by Stryker infantry vehicles, pushed into a section of mud-walled compounds that had been occupied by the Taliban in the Badula Qulp region, northeast of town.
Hit with small arms fire, the troops retaliated with machine guns and fired off a missile at a house where insurgents were believed to be hiding, and the militants quickly withdrew.
Brig. Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, who is in charge of Afghan troops in the offensive, said security responsibilities in a few sections of town, including the main bazaar, have been turned over to Afghan police, although they will continue to get assistance from Afghan soldiers.
A second group of Afghan police were dispatched to Marjah on Friday, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said. Altogether, 1,100 additional police will join the 400 police currently assigned to Marjah and Nad Ali district to the north, he said. Some 200 of them will focus on narcotics, he said.
Policeman Mohammad Lahaq Khanjer, from Kandahar, said he was proud to be chosen to help patrol town.
"We are coming to Marjah to provide security for the people and clear the area of militants," he said. "I'm ready to serve Marjah's people."
Ghori said five suspected militants who had stashed Afghan army and police uniforms in their homes had been arrested. They were handed over to intelligence services, he said. Infiltration of police and army ranks by insurgents has been a constant concern.
U.S. and Afghan troops encountered skilled sharpshooters and better-fortified Taliban positions Thursday, indicating that insurgent resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling center was far from crushed.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Marjah, told The Associated Press on Thursday that allied forces had taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centers in the farming town of 80,000 people about 360 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul, but fighting raged elsewhere.
Increasingly accurate sniper fire from militants — and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomb threats — indicated that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the town, he said.
British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, told reporters in Washington via a video hookup that he expects it could take another 30 days to secure Marjah.
Under NATO's "clear, hold, build" strategy, the allies plan to secure the area and then rush in a civilian Afghan administration, restore public services and pour in aid to try to win the loyalty of the population in preventing the Taliban from returning.