MARJAH, Afghanistan (AP) — Three more Afghan civilians have been killed in the assault on a southern Taliban stronghold, NATO forces said Tuesday, highlighting the toll on the population from an offensive aimed at making them safer.
The deaths — in three separate incidents — come after two errant U.S. missiles struck a house on the outskirts of the town of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, half of them children. Afghan officials said Monday that three Taliban fighters were in the house at the time of the attack.
About 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops are taking part in the massive offensive around Marjah — the linchpin of the Taliban logistical and opium poppy smuggling network in the militant-influenced south. U.S. Marines are spearheading the assault.
The offensive is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and a major test of a retooled NATO strategy to focus on protecting civilians rather than killing insurgents.
But in the fourth day of an assault that could take weeks, the drumbeat of gunfire and controlled detonations of planted bombs is sparking fear that civilians will bear the burden of the fight.
In two of the most recently reported incidents, Afghan men came toward NATO forces and ignored shouts and hand signals to stop, NATO said. The troops shot at the men and killed them. One of the shootings appeared to match an incident previously reported by The Associated Press.
In the third incident, two Afghan men were caught in the crossfire between insurgents and NATO forces. Both were wounded and one died of his injuries despite being given medical care, NATO said.
Taliban fighters have stepped up counterattacks against Marines and Afghan soldiers in Marjah, slowing the allied advance to a crawl despite Afghan government claims that the insurgents are broken and on the run.
Taliban fighters appeared to be slipping under cover of darkness into compounds already deemed free of weapons and explosives, then opening fire on the Marines from behind U.S. lines.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai approved the assault on Marjah only after instructing NATO and Afghan commanders to be careful about harming civilians. "This operation has been done with that in mind," the top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said Monday.
Despite those instructions, NATO reported its first civilian deaths Sunday, saying two U.S. rockets veered off target by up to 600 yards and slammed into a home — killing six children and six adults.
In London, Britain's top military officer, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, called the missile strike a "very serious setback" to efforts to win the support of local communities, who are from the same Pashtun ethnic group as the Taliban.
NATO suspended the use of the rocket system that killed the civilians following the 12 deaths, pending an investigation.
In a separate incident unrelated to the Marjah offensive, a NATO airstrike in neighboring Kandahar province killed five civilians and wounded two. NATO said in a statement that they were mistakenly believed to have been planting roadside bombs.
On Monday, Afghan commanders spoke optimistically about progress in Marjah, a town of about 80,000 people that is seen as key to securing the south. They said resistance was low, Taliban were fleeing across the border and that the town should soon be cleared of insurgents.
In Marjah, however, there was little sign the Taliban were broken. Instead, small, mobile teams of insurgents repeatedly attacked U.S. and Afghan troops with rocket, rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Insurgents moved close enough to the main road to fire repeatedly at columns of mine-clearing vehicles.
Allied officials have reported only two coalition deaths so far — one American and one Briton killed Saturday. There have been no reports of wounded. Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed so far in the offensive.
Two NATO service members died Monday from bomb strikes in Helmand; neither was part of the Marjah offensive, military spokesman Sgt. Kevin Bell said. NATO did not provide their nationalities.
Nonetheless, the harassment tactics and the huge number of roadside bombs, mines and booby traps planted throughout Marjah have succeeded in slowing the movement of allied forces through the town.
As long as the town remains unstable, NATO officials cannot move to the second phase — restoring Afghan government control and rushing in aid and public services to win over inhabitants who have been living under Taliban rule for years.
The main attack began before dawn Saturday when dozens of helicopters dropped hundreds of Marines and Afghan soldiers into the heart of the city.