Military commanders on Wednesday raised their flag over a bazaar badly damaged by U.S.-led offensive on Taliban stronghold in Marjah, a southern Afghan town.
The town, a network of desert irrigation canals constructed decades ago under a U.S.-funded development plan, is a place where the Taliban administers a government and controls a comparatively large population of 75,000 to 100,000 people.
The 15,000-troop NATO operation is named Mushtarak, or "together". A local Taliban commander, Qari Fazluddin, told Reuters earlier about 2,000 fighters were ready to fight.
An Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman said 1,100 Afghan police were deployed on Wednesday in Helmand's Nad Ali and Marjah districts.
With the assault in its fifth day, an Afghan army soldier climbed to the roof of an abandoned shop and raised a large bamboo pole with Afghanistan's official green-and-red flag. The market was calm during the raising of flag.
Shops and other buildings in the centre of the bazaar were badly damaged from fighting and barbed wire sealed off roads believed to be heavily mined.
The back of the building over which the flag waved had been blown away. Shops were riddled with bullet holes.
Shops on either side of the dirt roads running though the bazaar were mostly closed and empty, and some were badly damaged in the fighting.
One Marjah resident at the flag-raising said the area around the market has been devastated by the assault.
"The Taliban fired a few shots and then the troops came and bombed the area," said Abdul Rasheed, a middle-aged man said.
The offensive in Marjah — about 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul — is the biggest assault since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
About 40 fighters have been killed since the offensive began Saturday, Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal said. Four NATO soldiers have been killed, and one Afghan soldier.
But in a most-feared causalties, civilians have been killed too. NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have been killed.
"Too early to say Marjah had been taken"
The commander of the 4,400 Afghan forces taking part in the offensive ("together" in Dari) indicated it was too early to say Marjah had been taken.
The leader of Helmand, Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal, toured the battlefield but said Marjah had not yet been "cleared" completely of fighters nor the mines they had planted.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in U.S.-led foreign troops' attack since U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, U.N. said.
Early deployment of Afghan police
The assault "is progressing well", allowing early deployment of hundreds of Afghan police to maintain security once the military phase winds down, Reuters quoted officials as saying.
"The plan was that after a month the police would be deployed, but that changed and ... the additional forces were deployed in Marjah and Nad Ali today," Zemarai Bashary said.
NATO and Afghan officials told a news briefing via a video link from Kabul.
AgenciesLast Mod: 18 Şubat 2010, 08:27