MARJA, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters stepped up counterattacks Monday against Marines and Afghan soldiers in the militant stronghold of Marja, slowing the allied advance to a crawl despite Afghan government claims that the insurgents are broken and on the run.
Taliban fighters appeared to be slipping under cover of darkness into compounds already deemed free of weapons and explosives, then opening fire on the Marines from behind U.S. lines.
Also Monday, NATO said five civilians were killed and two wounded by an airstrike when they were mistakenly believed to have been planting roadside bombs in Kandahar province, east of the Marja offensive.
The airstrike happened one day after 12 people, half of them children, were killed by two U.S. missiles that struck a house on the outskirts of Marja.
The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force issued an apology Sunday for the deaths of the civilians, saying an American rocket "failed to hit intended target" and struck a house 300 yards away. U.S. and Afghan forces in a mixed unit had come under sustained fire before American troops fired the rocket.
Afghanistan's interior minister, Hanif Atmar, however, gave a different account Monday, saying that the dead civilians were being held as hostages.
"The Taliban were attacking (the soldiers) from five places. We took a decision to hit the fort (house), but we didn't know they had civilian hostages," Atmar said at a news conference in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
McClatchy Newspapers reported the ISAF later suggested that the coalition's initial apology had been in error. Coalition investigators now believe that the rocket hit its target and two insurgents died in the strike in addition to the 12 civilians. They are trying to determine whether those Taliban were holding the civilians prisoner.
McClatchy Newspapers, quoting a senior ISAF official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the information was not authorized for release, reported the soldiers "were taking fire from the house that was hit. In fact there was fire coming from five separate houses, (but it's ) unclear if this was one enemy moving back and forth or five different fire points."
On the third day of the main attack on Marja, Afghan commanders spoke optimistically about progress in the town of about 80,000, the linchpin of the Taliban logistical and opium poppy smuggling network in the militant-influenced south.
Brig. Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of Afghan troops in the south, told reporters in nearby Lashkar Gah that there had been "low resistance" in the town, adding "soon we will have Marja cleared of enemies."
Atmar said many insurgent fighters had already fled Marja, possibly heading for Pakistan.
In Marja, however, there was little sign the Taliban were broken. Instead, small, mobile teams of insurgents repeatedly attacked U.S. and Afghan troops with rocket, rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Insurgents moved close enough to the main road to fire repeatedly at columns of mine-clearing vehicles.
Allied officials have reported only two coalition deaths — one American and one Briton killed Saturday. Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed so far in the offensive.
Nonetheless, the harassment tactics and the huge number of roadside bombs, mines and booby traps planted throughout Marja have succeeded in slowing the movement of allied forces through the town. After daylong skirmishes, some Marine units had barely advanced at all by sundown.
As long as the town remains unstable, NATO officials cannot move to the second phase — restoring Afghan government control and rushing in aid and public services to win over inhabitants who have been living under Taliban rule for years.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai approved the assault on Marja only after instructing NATO and Afghan commanders to be careful about harming civilians. "This operation has been done with that in mind," the top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said Monday.
About 15,000 U.S., Afghan and British troops are taking part in the massive offensive around Marja area — the largest southern town under Taliban control. The offensive is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Information from McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.