Hidden road bombs a threat to civilians

KABUL, Afghanistan — Most of the bombs planted by retreating Taliban fighters around the town of Marjah, the focus of the current U.S.-led military offensive in southern Afghanistan, remain hidden threats to soldiers and civilians, military officers and Afghan officials said Wednesday.

"It is very concerning that only of small percent of the IEDs have been found.... This is a very dangerous period of time," said a senior official with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This is a risk to soldiers of course, but also a risk to civilians."

Western intelligence officers said they think the Taliban planted hundreds of improvised explosive devices in and around Marjah, in the southern province of Helmand, ahead of an operation that the U.S. and its allies publicized weeks in advance.

Taliban resistance around Marjah has been fierce at times, but sporadic with prolonged firefights. The center of the town, where there was a symbolic flag-raising ceremony Wednesday, has been secured, but its outskirts and the surrounding villages are littered with the bombs, which make progress slow.

Five days into the onslaught, IEDs are the main danger to an effort to showcase the new American strategy for clearing the Taliban out of populated areas, securing them and bringing in Afghan government officials and economic assistance.

The ISAF official said that the IEDs would make civilians feel unsafe.

The Taliban also have been experimenting with non-metallic IEDs, which are harder to detect, though so far they haven't mastered the technology, the ISAF official said.

The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, told a news conference in the provincial capital Wednesday that "every hour we're clearing mines," noting that controlled explosions have damaged the roads. IEDs have claimed the lives of at least two of the four international troops who've been killed so far, according to an ISAF spokesman.

Mangal presided over the raising of the Afghan flag in the Marjah bazaar. Marine Cpl. Matthew Ellis of Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, told reporters at the scene: "It was a lot easier than they were saying it was going to be, with ANA (Afghan National Army) and Marines working together, we have been going pretty fast."