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Civilians flee Afghan town ahead of US assault

NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan — Cars and trucks jammed the main road out of a besieged Taliban-held town on Friday as hundreds of civilians defied militant orders and fled the area ahead of an anticipated U.S.-Afghan assault.

Tribal elders pleaded for NATO to finish the operation quickly and spare civilians — an appeal that offers some hope the townspeople will cooperate with Afghan and international forces once the Taliban are gone.

Thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops have ringed the town of Marjah in Helmand province, poised to enter the farming community, drive off the Taliban and restore government control over a major insurgent supply base and opium-poppy center 380 miles (610 kilometers) southwest of Kabul.

Once the town is secured, NATO hopes to rush in aid and restore public services in a bid to win support among the estimated 125,000 people who live in Marjah and surrounding villages.

Although the Marjah operation began weeks ago with the movement of troops, U.S. commanders have not revealed when the main attack will take place. They have signaled their intention to attack Marjah for weeks in hopes that civilians would seek shelter.

The operation, which is under NATO auspices, is the first major offensive since President Barack Obama announced last December that he was sending 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan, and will serve as a significant test of the new U.S. strategy for turning back the Taliban.

Residents told The Associated Press by telephone this week that Taliban fighters were preventing them from leaving, warning the roads were planted with land mines to slow the NATO advance.

Nevertheless, the road between Marjah and the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, 20 miles (30 kilometers) to the northeast, was jammed Friday with hundreds of cars and trucks filled with people fleeing ahead of the assault. Many said they had to leave quickly and secretly to avoid recrimination from Taliban commanders.

Some said they slipped out of town when Taliban commanders weren't watching.

"We were not allowed to come here. We haven't brought any of our belongings; we just tried to get ourselves out," said Bibi Gul, an elderly woman in a black headscarf who arrived in nearby Lashkar Gah with three of her sons. She left three more sons behind in Marjah.

Police searched the vehicles for any signs of militants, in one case prodding bales of cotton with a metal rod in search of hidden weapons.

"They don't allow families to leave," Marjah resident Qari Mohammad Nabi said of the Taliban. "The families can only leave the village when they are not seen leaving."

Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said about 450 families — an estimated 2,700 people — had already sought refuge in Lashkar Gah. Most moved in with relatives but more than 100 were being sheltered by the government, he said.

Ahmadi said the local government was prepared to shelter 7,000 families in nearby towns, providing them with food, blankets and dishes.

In advance of the attack, Afghan officials urged community leaders in Marjah to use their influence to persuade the Taliban to lay down their weapons and avoid a bloodbath. In return, the officials promised to improve the lives of the people there.

During a meeting Thursday, Helmand's governor, Gulab Mangal, urged tribal elders from the town to "use any avenue you have, direct or indirect, to tell the Taliban who don't want to fight, that they can join with us," according to the chief of Helmand's provincial council, Mohammad Anwar Khan.

For their part, the elders begged for limited use of airstrikes because of the risk of civilian deaths, Khan said Friday.

Another of the elders at the meeting, Mohammad Karim Khan, said he would not dare to approach the Taliban and tell them to give up their guns to the government.

"We can't talk to the Taliban. We are farmers and poor people and we are not involved in these things like the politicians are," said Khan, who is not related to the provincial council chief.

Instead, a group of 34 elders sent a letter Friday to the provincial government urging NATO forces to finish the operation in Marjah quickly and to avoid harming civilians. Abdul Hai Agha, an elder from Marjah, said local people were frightened and feared they would not be cared for after the Taliban are gone.

"We said in this letter that if you are doing this operation in Marjah, do it quickly," Agha told the AP by phone from the town.

The fact that the elders did not demand U.S. and Afghan troops call off the operation offered a glimmer of hope the townspeople will cooperate with the pro-government forces — if the Afghan leadership is able to fulfill its promises of a better life without the Taliban.

U.S. officials have long complained that Afghan government corruption and inefficiency have alienated millions of Afghans and paved the way for the revival of the militant group after it was driven from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

One of the main drafters of the letter to government officials said he and others had been reaching out to local Taliban commanders.

"We have talked to some of the Taliban over the phone and we have told them: 'This is your country. Don't create problems for your fellow Afghans and don't go on a suicide mission,'" said Abdul Rehman Jan, an elder who lives in Lashkar Gah.

However, Jan said most of the Afghan Taliban have already fled the area. Militant commanders from the Middle East or Pakistan have stayed on "and they want to fight," he said.

U.S. intelligence officers estimate there are possibly up to 150 foreign fighters among the 400 to 1,000 Taliban militants in Marjah.

Elsewhere, villagers in the eastern province of Paktia accused a joint Afghan-NATO force of killing civilians during an overnight raid. NATO said it killed several insurgents on the compound and troops discovered the bodies of two men and two bound and gagged women inside the compound when they searched it.

Afghan officials in Paktia province confirmed Friday they are investigating the deaths of five people in a home near the provincial capital of Gardez.

Police Chief Gen. Azizudin Wardak said the five — two men and three women — were killed Thursday night during a party. One of the men worked for the police, while the second man worked for the attorney general's office, he said.

"Who killed them? We still don't know," he said.

Also Friday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on a U.S. military base a day earlier in Paktia near the Pakistani border that wounded five Americans.

The Paktia base is 400 miles (640 kilometers) northeast of Marjah.

Associated Press Writers Noor Khan in Kandahar and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.