Marines targeting Taliban in Afghan push

A U.S. Marine patrols Garmser district in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Friday.
U.S. Marines on Friday continued to lead a major push against militants in southern Afghanistan in an attempt to rout the Taliban from their stronghold in Helmand province, Marine Capt. William Pelletier said.

A Marine source described the fighting Thursday evening as “our most significant encounter.” Sporadic fighting took place over several hours in the southeastern sector of Garmser district, said Pelletier, spokesman for the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan. Helmand province, a poppy-growing region, is the focus of the military push called Operation Khanjar. Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world’s opium, which is used in the production of heroin. Marines fired 20 mm cannons on their Cobra helicopter gunships — but no bombs — to avoid the higher risk of civilian casualties. The source described resistance as “heavy” and “persistent” but intermittent. Militants responded using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Marines and Afghan forces now control the key town of Khan Neshin, which had been under Taliban control, the source said, and the goal of military forces is to reinstate local government officials. A Marine was killed and several others were wounded Thursday in the U.S.-led offensive, the Marines said. Some also suffered heat-related illnesses.

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The forces are attempting to gain and hold ground in the perilous region ahead of Afghan national elections in August. Watch a report on a U.S. soldier held in Taliban captivity ยป “Last night, Marines bedded down in compounds within cities … with permission from the people” rather than sleep in a restricted area — away from the local population, Pelletier said. He said military leaders also were holding talks with village leaders. In other developments, Russia will allow the United States to ship weapons across its airspace to Afghanistan, Kremlin spokesman Alex Pavlov said Friday.

Pavlov said he doesn’t know when the policy would take effect but said the details likely will come out when President Obama meets his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, next week in Moscow. A senior Obama administration official said the men are expected to sign an agreement to allow the transit of U.S. military equipment to Afghanistan for use in American military operations.