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Military says Afghan Offensive Making Steady Progress

Top military commanders in Afghanistan say a major anti-Taliban offensive in the southern Helmand Province is making steady progress. But the United Nations has expressed concern over reports of civilian deaths in the fighting and has called for warring sides to ensure protection of non-combatants.

About 15,000 U.S, British and Afghan forces are targeting the southern town of Marjaha, which is considered a major stronghold of Taliban militants and a hub of narcotics traffickers.

Afghan and NATO military commanders have reported progress in many parts of the militant-infested town since the joint offensive named Mushtarak began on Saturday. But they also have admitted that troops are coming under heavy gunfire and sniper attacks in some areas, while roadside bombs have also slowed down their campaign to impose the authority of the Afghan government in the area.

Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar says that coalition forces have besieged the town of Marjah, leaving no chance for Taliban fighters to flee.

Speaking to reporters in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, the minister urged militants who have chosen to fight to surrender.

"Today our message to them is your best option is to take advantage of the Afghan peace and reconciliation program. If they choose to take advantage of this program, we will definitely respond positively," he said.

The minister says the Afghan government has set up a council of prominent local elders of Marjah to contact fighters who are willing to quit violence and be reintegrated in the Afghan society.

Afghan officials have claimed the offensive killed at least 35 militants in the first two days. But on Sunday, reports of civilian deaths, including children, have prompted calls from the United Nations to ensure safety of non-combatants.

Wael Haj-Ibrahim is a top official at the U.N office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kabul.

"We are always concerned for the safety of civilian population and aid workers," said Haj-Ibrahim. "And again, we continue to call [for] people [to] respect the neutrality of aid workers and respect civilian population who are not party to the conflict and should be treated with dignity and there safety safeguarded," he urged.

The United Nations says the number of civilian families fleeing the war zone has risen to nearly 1,100. The U.N.'s Wael Haj-Ibrahim tells VOA the United Nations has put in place adequate measures, including vital food supplies to handle the displaced families.

But Mr. Haj-Ibrahim says the world organization is worried about an unspecified number of families who are still trapped in the town of Marjah.

"There are civilians that we understand are trapped or unable to move. So we are trying to access those people and we are also trying to work with local community groups, because they have better access then we do, to identify people who are in need of assistance," he said.

Coalition and Afghan commanders say the joint offensive is meant to seize and maintain hold on the town of Marajh. But critics say that much of the military campaign's success in the southern Afghan region depends on whether the administration wins the trust of the population and Afghan security forces are able to keep Taliban from returning.