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US Marines expand NATOs presence in southern Afghanistan
Afghanistan U SMari 5575553
U.S. Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit wish one another well as they prepare to leave in convoy from a forward operating base in southern Afghanistan, Monday April 28, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    OUTSIDE GARMSER, Afghanistan — Marines stormed into a Taliban-held town before daybreak Tuesday, trading gunfire with insurgents on the ground and using helicopter gunships to destroy a militant compound in one of Afghanistan’s most violent regions.
    Several hundred Marines, many of whom have fought in Iraq, reportedly met light resistance in the assault, which is the farthest south in years that American troops have operated in Helmand province.
    The goal is to stretch NATO’s presence into an area where illegal opium poppy fields are plentiful and the Taliban is strong. British troops man a small base on Garmser’s northern edge but insurgents rule the countryside south of the outpost all the way to the Pakistan border.
    No Marines suffered injuries, said their commander, Maj. Tom Clinton Jr. There was no immediate word on whether any insurgents were killed or wounded.
    An 11-year-old Afghan boy suffered a chest wound from the explosion of a rocket that insurgents apparently fired at Marines, Clinton said. The boy was flown to a British base for surgery. His condition wasn’t immediately known.
    ‘‘We haven’t seen anybody who isn’t carrying a gun,’’ Clinton said of the mostly deserted town. ‘‘They’re trying to figure out what we’re doing. They’re shooting at us, letting us know they’re there.’’
    The assault on Garmser was the first major task undertaken by the 2,300 Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which arrived in April from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for a seven-month deployment.
    Clinton, the American commander at Forward Operating Base Dwyer, a British base 10 miles west of Garmser, said militants and Marines exchanged fire in two parts of the town.
    Attack helicopters ‘‘obliterated’’ a compound used as a base by the insurgents, said Clinton, 36, of Swampscott, Mass. He said he didn’t if anyone was killed by the airstrike.
    The wounded boy was brought to Marines by the boy’s father and two Afghan men who wouldn’t identify themselves, which Clinton labeled ‘‘suspicious.’’ Much of Garmser has been abandoned by civilians, and up to 100 Taliban fighters were in the town or outlying areas, he said.
    The Marines reported finding rockets and bomb-making material and detonated a roadside bomb. Commanders said they expected insurgents to plant more bombs.
    Many of the men in the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit served in 2006 and 2007 in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province in western Iraq. The vast region was once the stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq before the militants were pushed out in early 2007.
    Capt. John Moder, 34, a company commander from North Kingstown, R.I., said before the assault began that the experience in Iraq would affect how his men fight in Afghanistan.
    ‘‘These guys saw a lot of progress in Ramadi, so they understand it’s not just kinetic (fighting),but it’s reconstruction and economic development,’’ he said.
    The Marines’ mission is the first carried out by U.S. forces this far south in Helmand province in years. An operation late last year to take back the Taliban-held town of Musa Qala in northern Helmand involved U.S., British and Afghan troops.
    Helmand is the world’s largest opium poppy-growing region and has been a flashpoint of the increasingly violent insurgency the last two years. British troops, who are responsible for Helmand, have fought in fierce battles in Helmand’s north.
    Most U.S. troops operate in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan. Britain, with 7,500 soldiers, and Canada, with 2,500 in neighboring Kandahar province, have not had enough manpower to tame the south.
    More than 8,000 people died in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan last year, according to a United Nations tally. Taliban fighters have increasingly relied on roadside bombs and suicide attacks since being routed in ground battles.

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