MARJAH, Afghanistan - U.S. and Afghan forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges and government centres of the Taliban haven of Marjah, the top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan said Thursday, though he added that pockets of insurgents remain.
"I'd say we control the spine" of the town, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson told The Associated Press as he inspected the Marines' front line in the north of the town. "We're where we want to be."
After six days of a massive NATO offensive, Marines and their Afghan counterparts succeeded in their initial military objectives, he said: They now control all access points into town, the government centres and the main markets, and the key roads that crisscross the 80-square-mile (200-square-kilometre) area.
As Nicholson spoke, bursts of heavy machine-gunfire in the near distance highlighted that insurgents still hold terrain less than a mile (kilometre) away.
"Everyday, there's not a dramatic change, it's steady," he said, noting that fighting continues to erupt.
The offensive is the biggest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and a test of President Barack Obama's strategy for reversing the rise of the Taliban while protecting civilians.
Five NATO service members and one Afghan soldier have been killed since the attack on the town, the hub of the Taliban's southern logistics and drug-smuggling network, began Saturday.
U.S. Marines pummeled insurgents with mortars, sniper fire and missiles as gunbattles intensified during the day. Enemy fighters fired back with rocket-propelled grenades.
Senior Marine officers say they have intelligence showing that more than 120 insurgents have been killed since the fighting began, but Nicholson would not discuss that number. Afghan officials have said more than 40 militants have been killed.
However, "several hundred" fighters have probably regrouped and will try resist the Marines' advance against their strongholds in the coming days, Nicholson added.
The increasingly accurate fire from snipers - and strong intelligence on possible suicide bomber threats - indicates that insurgents from outside Marjah are still operating within the town, he said.
But there were also pockets of calm Thursday. Some families could be seen coming back to their homes, their donkeys laden down with their belongings, in a sign that some civilians believed the fighting is over in zones secured by NATO troops.
Several storekeepers reopened their shops in the bullet-riddled bazaar in the northern part of town, as customers lined up to buy goods for the first time in nearly a week.
As Marines and Afghan soldiers press their offensive in Marjah, they have been forced to hold their fire because insurgents are shooting from inside or next to mud-walled compounds where civilians are present - and restraint slows their advance.
On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Mohiudin Ghori, Nicholson's Afghan counterpart, condemned the insurgents' use of women and children as human shields during the fighting.
"We've seen children terrified, crying in front of doorways," just before a Taliban shoots from behind them, Ghori said. "It's outrageous."
NATO has confirmed 15 civilian deaths in the operation. Afghan rights groups say at least 19 have died.
One Marjah farmer said the Taliban forced their way into his home and used it to fire on the troops.
"We couldn't do anything when one of them was forcing his way into our house. What could we do?" said Sayed Wakhan, a sunburnt, middle-aged opium poppy farmer in northern Marjah.
But Wakhan, who spoke to reporters as he mixed mud to make repairs on his house, also said he didn't trust the government forces who now occupy his neighbourhood.
"I have suffered at the hands of police, and I don't like the international forces coming into our area," he spat out. His vitriol was a reminder of the tough job ahead for NATO and Afghan authorities in winning over locals used to an uneasy peace under the Taliban.
The troops have to go to great lengths to identify who the insurgents are. Marines stopped one man Thursday as he exited a compound from which they'd been receiving fire, but he had no weapon. So they ran a quick test on his hands and found gunpowder residue.
That was what they needed to arrest him. Soldiers tied his hands behind his back and covered his face with a shawl while he sat cross-legged on the ground waiting to be hauled away.
Once the town of 80,000 people is secure, NATO plans to rush in civil administrators to revive schools, health clinics and electricity in hopes of winning public support to discourage the Taliban from returning.
In another sign of the difficulty that NATO faces in trying to reverse the rise of militants, eight Afghan army officers defected to the Taliban in another province, a police official said.
The policemen abandoned their posts in central Wardak province's Chak district and joined with Taliban militants in the area, Mirza Khan, deputy provincial police chief, said Thursday. He said one of the officers had previous ties with the Taliban. The incident is being investigated.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed the defection, saying, "These policemen came on their own and told us they want to join with the Taliban. Now they are with us."
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Helmand province, and Tini Tran and Heidi Vogt in Kabul, contributed to this report.