KABUL — Amid intelligence reports alleging that Taliban insurgents are holding civilians as hostages, American and Afghan forces moved cautiously through the Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Monday as they pressed the biggest offensive since the U.S. landed troops in Afghanistan more than eight years ago.
The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force had issued an apology Sunday for the deaths of 12 civilians who were killed in Marjah, saying that 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.
Afghan interior minister Hanif Atmar 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.
The ISAF later suggested that the coalition's initial apology had been in error.
Coalition investigators now think that the rocket hit its target and two insurgents died in the strike in addition to the 12 civilians, ISAF officials said. They're trying to determine whether those Taliban were holding the civilians prisoner.
The soldiers "were taking fire from the house that was hit. In fact there was fire coming from five separate houses, (but) unclear if this was one enemy moving back and forth or five different fire points," said a senior ISAF official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the information wasn't yet authorized for release.
Before the operation began, the ISAF had picked up some intelligence that the Taliban planned to detain civilians at gunpoint, ISAF officials said. Now, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Taliban in Marjah are trying to force their way into civilian homes.
"We had intelligence reports going into this that not only were there immense amounts of bombs, IEDs" — improvised explosive devices —"and booby traps out there, we understood people were held against their will," the senior ISAF official said.
"We believe the objective there is to create those as human shields or — in the worst-case scenarios — maybe even as false civilian casualties. If we don't create them (civilian casualties), they might create them," the official added.