U.S. Marines battled Taliban fighters for control of a strategic southern town in a new operation to cut militant supply lines and allow Afghan residents to vote in next week's presidential election.
Insurgents appeared to dig in for a fight, firing volleys of rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and missiles from the back of a truck at the Marines, who were surprised at the intense resistance. By sunset, Marines had made little progress into Dahaneh beyond the gains of the initial predawn assault Wednesday.
Fighting accelerated after sundown, and officers predicted a couple of days of intense combat before the town could be secured.
"Based on the violence with which they've been fighting back against us, I think it indicates the Taliban are trying to make a stand here," said Capt. Zachary Martin, a Marine commander.
The operation was launched with 400 Marines and 100 Afghan troops, who leapfrogged over Taliban lines in helicopters to attack militant positions in mud-brick compounds at the edge of Dahaneh.
It was the third major push by U.S. and British forces this summer into Taliban-controlled areas of Helmand province, center of Afghanistan's lucrative opium business and scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the Afghan war.
U.S. and British troops hope to break the Taliban's grip on the province, sever smuggling routes from Pakistan and protect the civilian population from Taliban reprisals so Afghans can vote in the Aug. 20 election.
The Taliban has called for a boycott and threatened to ruin the election.