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NATO Clears Taliban From Most of Their Afghan Stronghold

NATO commanders say their joint offensive with Afghan troops has "significantly dislocated" the Taliban's chain of command and driven insurgents from most of their former stronghold in the town of Marjah, in Helmand province.

The British commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Major General Nick Carter, told reporters Tuesday that about two-thirds of Marjah has been cleared of militant fighters, and that only isolated groups of fighters are a source of "significant resistance." He said allied forces would be fighting for several more days before they could claim full control of the area.

Carter said roadside bombs and insurgent snipers have slowed the advance of 15,000 Afghan and NATO troops. U.S. forces brought in heavy cannon Tuesday to force insurgents out of their hideouts, but Carter noted they fired only nonlethal smoke rounds, to avoid civilian casualties. U.S. Marines make up most of the American force that was dropped into Marjah by helicopter on Saturday.

Since the allies' Operation "Moshtarak" began on February 13, NATO says four of its soldiers have been killed. Those casualties include one soldier who died in a roadside bombing Tuesday and another who was killed on Monday by small-arms fire.

Afghan officials say at least 35 Taliban fighters were killed during the first two days of combat.

The Taliban disputes NATO's account of the battle. The insurgents' spokesmen say Taliban fighters still control Marjah, and that international forces there are "under siege."

NATO has reported 15 civilian deaths, including 12 who were killed Sunday when coalition rockets hit a home in Marjah. Senior military officials said the rockets were intended to hit militants in the area, and those who targeted the weapons did not know that civilians were in the building.

Human rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday urged both the Taliban and international forces to protect civilians during the offensive. Amnesty officials say about 10,000 Afghan civilians have fled the conflict, but "thousands are caught up in the fighting."

NATO commanders say protecting civilians is a major priority, but that effort has been complicated by Taliban fighters operating in civilian areas.

The Marjah offensive is the biggest joint operation NATO and Afghan troops have conducted since the war in Afghanistan began in late 2001.

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