MARJAH, Afghanistan - U.S. and Afghan forces traded gunfire with insurgents shooting from haystacks in poppy fields Tuesday as NATO forces progressed against increasingly fitful resistance in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah.
NATO said a service member taking part in the operation was killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday - the third confirmed fatality among international forces since the attack on the town began Saturday.
NATO did not identify the latest victim by nationality. Afghan military spokesman Lt. Mohammad Esah said Tuesday one Afghan soldier has died in the offensive but did not say when.
Insurgents tried but failed to bring down an Osprey aircraft with rocket-propelled grenades as Cobra attack helicopters fired missiles at enemy positions, including a machine-gun bunker. Marines and Afghan troops who pushed through four days of sniper fire and homemade bombs finally linked up with units that had been airdropped into town in the first hours of the offensive.
When troops first landed by helicopter in the early hours of Saturday, there was initially no fighting, but that soon changed, said Lt. Gordon Emmanuel, commander of 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. Entrenched in a compound deep in town, they have fought heated battles for days, waiting for the ground assault troops to arrive with reinforcements.
"When it is daytime, there is nonstop contact until the sun goes down ... every day," Emmanuel said.
Overall, Marine officials said the resistance seemed to be growing disorganized.
"We're not seeing co-ordinated attacks like we did originally. We're still getting small-arms fire but it's sporadic, and hit-and-run tactics," said spokesman Capt. Abraham Sipe. "As a whole, while there is still resistance, it is of a disorganized nature."
A Taliban spokesman, however, claimed that insurgents retain control of the town and coalition forces "descended from helicopters in limited areas of Marjah and now are under siege."
Spokesman Tariq Ghazniwal extended an invitation by email to journalists to visit Marjah, saying the trip would "show who have the upper hand in the area."
But U.S. forces say they have managed to consolidate footholds in the town despite harassment by sniper squads trying to slow their advance. For the first time since the offensive started, U.S. forces fired long-range artillery "smoke shells," which are non-lethal, to intimidate insurgents.
"We are trying not to be decisively engaged, so we can progress, but we're having some difficulty right now," said Lima Company commander Capt. Joshua Winfrey.
Squads continued with their house-to-house searches, removing bombs and booby-traps as they moved through town. Inside some compounds Tuesday, squads found small doses of heroin, a Taliban photo album with fighters posing with AK-47s, and large propaganda wall paintings of insurgents shooting down helicopters.
Three more Afghan civilians were killed in the assault, NATO forces said, highlighting the toll on the population from an offensive aimed at making civilians safer.
The deaths - in three separate incidents - come after two errant U.S. missiles struck a house on the outskirts of Marjah on Sunday, killing 12 people, half of them children. Afghan officials said 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.
As the NATO offensive aims to break the Taliban influence in southern Afghanistan, the militant group received another blow with the news of its top military commander's arrest in Pakistan.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group's No. 2 leader behind Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and a close associate of Osama bin Laden, was captured in the port city of Karachi, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. The arrest appeared to have occurred as many as 10 days ago, and it was unclear if it had any effect on the Marjah battle.
The offensive is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and is a major test of a retooled NATO strategy to focus on protecting civilians, rather than killing insurgents. But in two incidents confirmed Tuesday, Afghan men came toward NATO forces and ignored shouts and hand signals to stop, NATO said. Troops opened fire and killed them. In a third incident, two Afghan men were caught in the crossfire between insurgents and NATO forces. Both were wounded and one died despite being given medical care, NATO said.
NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths, but an Afghan human rights group said Tuesday they have counted 19 since the operation began. Four were caught in the crossfire when they left their homes.
"Their neighbours tell us that the bodies are outside and they want someone to pick them up. They say they're scared if they go outside they will also be shot dead," said Ajmal Samadi, the director of Afghanistan Rights Monitor. It was unclear whether NATO or insurgent forces were to blame for the deaths, he said.
In an incident unrelated to the Marjah offensive, a NATO airstrike in neighbouring Kandahar province killed five civilians and wounded two. NATO said they were mistakenly believed to have been planting roadside bombs.
Elsewhere in Helmand province, NATO and Afghan forces killed more than 10 militants while pursuing a Taliban commander in Washir district, west of the Marjah area.
In Marjah, Marine and Afghan squads skirted the booby-trapped streets of the town, pushing through more rural sections where fields of chest-high poppies grew amid irrigation canals.
But there they found insurgent snipers firing from haystacks built over small canals. It appeared that lone snipers were seeking to draw the Marine squads into areas where they could be targeted by larger Taliban units firing from rooftops.
Squads with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines fanned out in columns alongside an armoured-vehicle convoy as they moved carefully through poppy fields. A mine-roller leading the way detonated planted bombs as it advanced.
Residents said they were scared to be seen with NATO forces. One man, Wali Mohammad, warned an AP reporter, "Don't take pictures or the Taliban will come back to kill me," as Marines searched his compound.
Mohammad said he strongly suspected insurgents would return to the area as soon as the Marines moved on. He said Taliban fighters had targeted U.S. and Afghan troops, firing from his neighbours' houses.
"When they come, we try to tell them not to use our house, but they have guns so they do what they want," the poppy farmer said.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Tini Tran in Kabul and Rahim Faiez in Helmand province contributed to this report.