NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan – U.S. and Afghan troops fought back small-scale attacks by Taliban fighters Friday on the northern outskirts of Marjah, as tribal elders pleaded for NATO to finish its planned attack on the Taliban stronghold quickly and carefully to protect civilians.
No casualties were reported in the series of skirmishes throughout the day. In one clash, Marines fought off an ambush against one of their convoys with 50-caliber machine guns and grenade launchers. Reporters with the U.S. 5th Stryker Brigade heard a large explosion, which troops said was from a missile attack against a Taliban compound.
Thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops are taking part in the operation to wrest control of Marjah, 380 miles southwest of Kabul, away from the Taliban and restore government authority over the town, a major supply base of the insurgents and a center of their opium-poppy business. The British are mounting a parallel operation to the north.
NATO hopes to rush in public services after the Taliban leave and undermine support for the militants among the estmated 80,000 people in the town. The population of the town and the surrounding area is estimated at about 125,000.
On Friday, a group of 34 elders said in a letter to provincial officials that their people are frightened and worried they won't be watched after, according to Abdul Hai Agha, an elder from Marjah.
"We said in this letter that if you are doing this operation in Marjah, do it quickly," Agha told The Associated Press by phone from nearby Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. They also urged the troops to do their best to avoid civilian casualties during the assault and have food and shelter ready in nearby towns for refugees.
U.S. and Afghan forces have ringed Marjah, sealing off escape routes.
The operations — the largest in the nine-year Afghan war — has been telegraphed for weeks. Military officials have said they hope advertising the assault would give civilians more time to get to safety but many of the elders say they're now stuck in a terrifying limbo — unsure how soon the attack will start but certain it will be devastating when it does.
Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said the governor's office had received the letter and that many of the requested measures were in place.
"We have arranged space for 7,000 families" in nearby towns, along with food and items like blankets and dishes, Ahmadi said. He said about 450 families — an estimated 2,700 people — have already sought refuge in Lashkar Gah, about 20 miles northeast of Marjah. Many of them took up with relatives but more than 100 were being sheltered by the government, he said.
On Friday, the road between Marjah and Lashkar Gah was clogged with cars and trucks filled with people fleeing ahead of the assault, according to AP Television News footage. Many said they had to leave quickly and secretly to avoid recrimination from Taliban commanders.
"We were not allowed to come here. We haven't brought any of our belongings; we just tried to get ourselves out," said an elderly woman in a black headscarf who was on a minibus with three of her sons. Bibi Gul said she had three more sons she had to leave behind.
Others said they had to wait to leave when Taliban commanders weren't watching.
Police searched the vehicles for any signs of militants, in one case prodding bales of cotton with a metal rod in search of hidden weapons.
The plea from elders came a day after Afghanistan's interior minister met with about 300 tribal leaders in Lashkar Gah to explain the goals of the operation and ask for their support.
It was unclear whether the government's dialogue with elders had delayed the start of the offensive.
During the meeting, Helmand's governor urged the elders to use any connections they have with Taliban fighters in and around Marjah to ask them to lay down their weapons and come over to the government side.
Gov. Gulab Mangal asked the elders to "use any avenue you have, direct or indirect, to tell the Taliban who don't want to fight that they can join with us," according to the chief of Helmand's provincial council, Mohammad Anwar Khan.
On their side, the elders begged for limited use of air strikes because of the potential for civilian deaths, Khan said.
It was unclear whether the governor's plea was likely to lead to action. Another one of the elders at the meeting, Mohammad Karim Khan, said he would not dare to start going up to Taliban in his area and telling them to give up their guns to the government.
"We can't talk to the Taliban. We are farmers and poor people and we are not involved in these things like the politicians are," said Khan, who is not related to the provincial council chief.
One of the main drafters of the letter to government officials said he and some others had been reaching out to local Taliban commanders.
"We have talked to some of the Taliban over the phone and we have told them: 'This is your country. Don't create problems for your fellow Afghans and don't go on a suicide mission,"' said Abdul Rehman Jan, an elder who lives in Lashkar Gah.
However, Jan said they don't expect to be able to bring anyone in because most of the Afghan Taliban have already fled the area. Militant commanders from the Middle East or Pakistan have stayed on "and they want to fight," Jan said.
He added that many villagers are afraid to flee because of the risk of crossing over bomb-laced fields and roads.
In the east, meanwhile, villagers accused a joint Afghan-NATO force of killing civilians during an overnight raid. NATO said it killed several insurgents on the compound and that troops discovered the bodies of two men and two bound and gagged women inside the compound when they searched it.
Afghan officials in Paktia province confirmed Friday they are investigating the deaths of five people in a home near the provincial capital of Gardez.
Police Chief Gen. Azizudin Wardak said the five — two men and three women — were killed Thursday night during a party. One of the men worked for the police, while the second man worked for the attorney general's office, he said.
"Who killed them? We still don't know," he said.
Also Friday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on a U.S. military base Thursday in Paktia near the Pakistani border that injured five Americans.
The Paktia base is 400 miles northeast of Marjah.