NEW DELHI (AlertNet) – Several thousand people living around the Taliban’s last major stronghold in southern Afghanistan have fled their homes as a massive U.S.-led NATO assault gets underway to take control of the area, the United Nations says. Since the offensive on Marjah town in volatile Helmand province began on Saturday, thousands of U.S. marines and Afghan forces have launched attacks on militant hideouts in one of the biggest operations since the war began in 2001. In the days leading up to the highly publicised assault, hundreds of residents left Marjah, but the United Nations says more have fled the area since the violence started. Orla Fagan from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said around 1,100 families – about 6,600 people – have so far been displaced from Marjah and the neighbouring district of Nad Ali. The average size of an Afghan family is six, although many are much larger. “We are deeply concerned about the civilians caught up in the fighting and have seen an increasing number of people coming out of the area, mainly seeking refuge in the nearby provincial capital Lashkar Gah,” Fagan told AlertNet by phone from Kabul. “We expect the numbers to rise further, but we have no idea how many are likely to be displaced as it depends on the duration and intensity of the fighting.” Operation Moshtarak – meaning “together” in the Dari language – combines international and Afghan forces, and is a test of U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to seize insurgent-held areas before a planned 2011 troop drawdown. CIVILIANS TOLD TO STAY Some 15,000 forces have been deployed in and around Marjah, an area of lush farmland criss-crossed by canals that has become a breeding ground for insurgents and poppy cultivation. But the area is densely populated – 100,000 people are estimated to be living in the town alone – raising concerns about civilians holed up there. NATO says it is doing its utmost to minimise casualties. It has pre-warned civilians by talking with village elders and dropping leaflets in the days leading up to the operation, and has advised residents to “remain in the safety of their homes”. Human rights groups say that as NATO has encouraged people to stay, it bears an additional legal and moral responsibility to avoid heavy fighting that would cause civilian casualties. But the allied forces suffered a blow on the operation’s second day when two rockets fired by NATO troops missed militants and hit a house killing 12 members of one family. The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) admitted that another three civilians were killed in separate incidents on Sunday and Monday. “These incidents represent some of the most difficult situations being faced by Afghan and ISAF forces conducting Operation Moshtarak,” Colonel Steven Baker, ISAF Joint Command Combined Joint Operations Cell director, said in a statement. “Our forces are continuing to do everything they can to protect civilians.” Analysts say the risk of a large number of civilian casualties could undermine the Obama administration’s military strategy for Afghanistan. STRUGGLE TO REACH MEDICAL CARE Helmand province – the country’s most violent region – has been wracked with insecurity for years, and aid workers say locals have faced numerous challenges trying to move around the area. Checkpoints and roadblocks set up by the Afghan police and international forces deter civilians from travelling. Many are too fearful to try, afraid of being considered a militant. With the offensive now underway, residents trying to flee the violence or needing to seek medical assistance for war wounds will struggle to get help, aid workers warn. Booby traps, mines and home-made bombs planted by retreating insurgents have not only slowed down the NATO mission but also prevented civilians from leaving the area. “It has always been very difficult to travel in this area due to the insecurity … those seeking secondary medical care in places like Lashkar Gah are going to find it extremely difficult,” Michiel Hofman, country representative for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), told AlertNet. There are two hospitals in Lashkar Gah, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, but health facilities are very basic in the conflict area. The ICRC says those who do manage to reach a medical facility often make it only after long delays. The agency has sent two additional medical kits with equipment for the basic treatment of wounded people to its first-aid post in Marjah. The United Nations expects rising displacement as allied forces continue to sweep and clear areas in and around Marjah, and has appealed for all parties to allow civilians access to emergency relief. “We are calling on combatants to respect the neutrality of the humanitarian community and humanitarian aid,” said U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Robert Watkins. “The affected population must be assured of unobstructed access to basic services.”
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