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Afghan Army Claims Part of Town at Center of Southern Offensive

Afghan soldiers raised their national flag Wednesday over the main market in the southern town at the center of a major offensive against the Taliban.

Officials said that while troops have captured the main bazaar in Marjah, they are not yet fully in control of the former rebel stronghold in Helmand Province.

Military officials say Taliban fighters are increasingly using women and children as "human shields" in an effort to exploit NATO rules about firing on civilian areas.

General Mohiudin Ghori says the Taliban have been seen ordering civilians to stand on the roofs of houses while militants fire at U.S. and Afghan troops. The Taliban has denied the accusation.

At least five NATO soldiers and at least 15 civilians have been killed since the start of the operation late Saturday. The number of reported Taliban deaths has risen to 40.

Marjah has long been controlled by drug traffickers and the Taliban. The offensive on the town involves a new U.S.-led plan to push out the Taliban and quickly deploy Afghan police and officials to provide security, government services, job programs and development projects.

About 15,000 Afghan and NATO troops are involved in the offensive on the town of about 80,000 people.

An Afghan interior ministry spokesman, Zemerai Bashari, said 1,100 Afghan police were deployed in Marjah and the neighboring Nad Ali district Wednesday, as part of plans to set up a civilian administration after the offensive ends.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.