- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2010

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | Minivans piled high with mattresses and clothing lined up at checkpoints Sunday as hundreds of civilians fled a Taliban-controlled area ahead of a planned NATO offensive in southern Afghanistan.

The militants, meanwhile, dug in for a fight, reinforcing their positions with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons, according to witnesses.

The U.S. military has not given a start date for the operation to clear insurgents from the Helmand province town of Marjah, the biggest community in the south under insurgent control. But the military has said fighting will start soon and many residents weren’t taking any chances.

American aircraft dropped leaflets over Marjah on Sunday warning people of the coming offensive, officers said, and the U.S. fired illumination rounds after sundown, apparently to help spot Taliban positions.

Villagers said the leaflets were aimed primarily at the militants, listing several of their commanders by name and warning fighters to leave the area or be killed.

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the success of the operation depends on convincing civilians that the government will improve services once the militants are gone.

The offensive in Marjah — a farming community and major opium-production center with a population of 80,000 — will be the first since President Obama announced he was sending 30,000 additional troops.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai discussed the ongoing operations in Helmand province in a telephone conversation Sunday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a spokesperson for Mr. Brown said.

U.S. officials have long telegraphed their intention to seize Marjah. Gen. McChrystal said the element of surprise was not as important as letting citizens know that an Afghan government will be there to replace Taliban overlords and drug traffickers.

“We’re trying to create a situation where we communicate to them that when the government re-establishes security, they’ll have choices,” Gen. McChrystal told reporters Sunday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said there was no way to count the number of people who have left Marjah because many have moved in with relatives or rented houses in nearby towns instead of registering for emergency relief.

Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, the head of the provincial refugee department, estimated that 90 to 100 families had left the Marjah area because of concerns about the operation. Afghan families have an average of six members, according to private relief groups.

The Taliban were not preventing villagers from leaving but were digging trenches and carrying in new heavy weapons on motorbikes.

In other developments Sunday, NATO-led forces said they had arrested a deputy provincial police chief they accused of helping insurgents place roadside bombs north of Kabul.

NATO said Attaullah Wahab was arrested Friday in the Kapisa provincial capital of Mahmud-i-Raqi for involvement in the storage, distribution and planting of roadside bombs as well as corruption related to road reconstruction.

In Kandahar, a bomb detonated by remote control struck an Afghan patrol Sunday, killing three policemen, according to a local policeman, Mohammad Razaq. Two Swedish soldiers and a locally hired interpreter were killed by small arms fire near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

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