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Marines push deeper into southern Afghanistan villages

A U.S. Marine takes position in the village of Noghara, southern Afghanistan.

AP PHOTO

NAWA, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines moved into villages in Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan on Friday, meeting little resistance as they tried to win over local chiefs on the second day of the biggest military operation here since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.

One Marine was killed and several others injured or wounded on Thursday, when some 4,000 Marines launched the operation in Helmand province — a remote area that is at the center of the country’s illegal opium cultivation, which helps finance the insurgency.

So far, however, there has been little resistance from the Taliban, according to a military spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said a roadside bomb Wednesday in Helmand killed the most senior U.K. officer to have died in combat in Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe was the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards.

In the country’s east, meanwhile, a roadside bomb Friday killed three Afghans and a foreigner working on a road construction project, said Bismillah Mangal, the deputy governor Paktia province. The blast ripped through their vehicle as it was traveling on a road that connects Paktia and Khost province, Mangal said.

The aim of the operation in Helmand is not simply to kill Taliban fighters but to win over the local population, Pelletier said — a difficult task in a region where foreigners are viewed with suspicion.

“We are not worried about the Taliban, we are not focused on them. We are focused on the people,” Pelletier said. “It is important to engage with the key leaders, hear what they need most and what are their priorities.”

The offensive along 55 miles (88 kilometers) of Taliban-controlled areas in southern Afghanistan will test the Obama administration’s new strategy of holding territory to let the Afghan government sink roots in rural areas where Taliban influence is strong.

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