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Afghan government raises its flag in Marja

The Afghan government laid symbolic claim to the former Taliban stronghold of Marja with a formal flag-raising ceremony Thursday and installation of a new civilian administration.

Both Afghan and Western military officials, though, said the campaign to secure the southern town would go on for weeks.

As the flag-raising ceremony was taking place, scattered clashes continued and coalition forces proceeded with the painstaking work of finding and destroying the many bombs planted by insurgents.

U.S. Marines and British and Afghan troops launched the Marja assault on Feb. 13. With 15,000 troops taking part in combat and support operations spread over a wide area, it has been the largest single Western offensive since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which toppled the Taliban government.

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At Thursday’s ceremony, hundreds of residents looked on as the red and green national flag was raised. The town’s new civilian leader, Haji Zahir, promised to begin restoring basic government services, which Marja has lacked for at least two years.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marines’ commander, attended the ceremony but did not speak. Western military officials said that it was a deliberate gesture, meant to emphasize that the offensive was designed to pave the way for Afghans to govern themselves.

Canadian Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, told reporters in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that the fight was not over, but coalition troops were shifting from “clear to hold posture” in the surrounding Nad Ali district.

“The operation . . . has made a lot of progress since Feb. 13,” Tremblay said.

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But he said Taliban fighters had maintained a presence in the town, some blending in among civilians. Others were holding out in fortified bunkers or setting ambushes against the coalition force.

“It is true that some insurgents may have pushed themselves out of the area,” Tremblay said, “but some have melted away among the population.”

Thirteen Western troops, including at least eight Marines, have been killed in the campaign, along with three Afghan soldiers.

Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense, said at the Kabul news conference that 35 civilians had been killed, more than previously reported. He did not give a breakdown of how many deaths were attributed to Western forces and how many to insurgents.

“We are striving every day to reduce the risk in order to ensure that we protect as many civilians as possible,” Tremblay said. “The reality is we cannot remove all the risks.”

tony.perry@latimes.com

Times staff writer Laura King in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.


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