US Marines under fire ahead of Afghan assault By Patrick Baz (AFP) â 6 hours ago OUTSKIRTS OF MARJAH, Afghanistan â US Marines came under attack from insurgents armed with sniper guns and rocket-propelled grenades as they geared up Wednesday to overwhelm a Taliban bastion in Afghanistan. Thousands of Marines along with foreign and Afghan soldiers are massing around the town of Marjah in Helmand, which officials say is one of the last areas of the southern province under Taliban control. The flow of residents fleeing the imminent offensive has slowed, provincial officials said, after loaded-down cars, trucks, tractors and buses clogged roads from Marjah to provincial capital Lashkah Gar for days. "We have announced and told people in Marjah not to leave their houses as our operation is well planned and designed to target the enemy," said Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal. "Civilians will not be harmed," he said. Another 75 families had left Marjah, on top of 164 families who left earlier, the spokesman said. Other officials have said more than 400 families have fled. The operation, expected to begin in days, will be the biggest push since US President Barack Obama announced a new surge of troops to Afghanistan and one of the biggest since the 2001 US-led invasion defeated the Taliban regime. It is seen as a key test of a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy that aims to follow up what officials predict will be a decisive military victory by establishing Afghan government control. But Taliban fighters appear defiant in the face of the enormous fire power being amassed in the region, where they have held sway for years in tandem with drug traffickers. An AFP photographer said 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines Regiment arrived by helicopter at Berkha Nawa junction, on the northeastern outskirts of Marjah, and immediately came under sniper fire from insurgents. The Marines encampment, reinforced with sandbags, also came under rocket fire. US Cobra helicopters were called in to attack Taliban positions, the photographer said. The Marines searched houses and compounds for weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- the prime Taliban killer of foreign troops -- and evacuated residents from all but one of the homes still occupied. The remaining family, he said, were staying as they had nowhere to go. Insurgents could be seen planting IEDs on roads surrounding the junction, he said, and Marines were doing regular sweeps to clear the area. NATO forces dropped leaflets on the area warning of the fight to come, to give residents and insurgents time to flee and avoid a battle, officials said. Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said the US-led alliance hoped the operation would proceed "swiftly and with as little incident as possible". "But this very much depends on the conduct of people who are in Marjah at the moment and their choices about whether to resist or to lay down their weapons and, as the government has offered them, come over under the sovereignty of the legitimate authorities," he told reporters. "People need to be under no illusion -- this operation is going to succeed, we are going to bring Afghan government sovereignty to this area. The biggest threat faced by international and Afghan forces is IEDs, with the Taliban claiming to have developed a new bomb -- named Omar after their fugitive leader -- that cannot be detected by Western mine sweepers. So far this year more than 60 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan. The number of foreign troop deaths hit a record 520 last year. Copyright Â© 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.