By Abdul Malek
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban militants are massing and preparing for a big fight ahead of a major NATO offensive in an insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan, villagers fleeing the area said on Sunday.
U.S. Marines are set to launch a massive operation within days to take Marjah, a dense warren of canals and lush farmland in the centre of Helmand, the country's most violent province.
Military commanders are dubbing the area the last big Taliban enclave in the province. The offensive, one of the biggest of the eight-year-old war, will mark the first major show of force since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered in 30,000 extra troops.
Washington hopes the Marine operation will help decisively turn the momentum this year in a war that commanders accept has not been going their way. They have also not kept the planned offensive a secret, hoping the militants will give up the fight.
"It has to do with letting people know what's coming in the hope that the hardcore Taliban, or a lot of the Taliban, will simply leave, and maybe there will be less of a fight," U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in Turkey on Saturday.
According to some of the villagers escaping Marjah in fear of their lives, fighters are digging in rather than fleeing.
"The Taliban are not going to leave Marjah. We have seen them preparing themselves. They are bringing in people and weapons. We know there is going to be a big fight," said Abdul Manan, a man from Marjah who had fled to Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah.
"The Taliban are very active in Marjah. They are planting mines there and in the surrounding areas," said another villager, Abdul Khaleq, after arriving in Lashkar Gah with his family.
The Taliban have stepped up their fight against Afghan and foreign troops in recent years. They have largely shied away from face-to-face combat, relying instead on deadly homemade bombs.
Abdullah Nasrat, a Taliban commander in Nad Ali district where Marjah is located, told Reuters by telephone there were some 2,000 insurgents there ready to fight to the death.
"We are well prepared and will fight until the end. We don't have sophisticated weapons like the Americans with tanks and air planes, but we have Islamic zeal. That is the power we have to fight against the infidels," he said.
"WRATH OF AMERICANS"
Around one hundred families have fled Marjah and surrounding areas, seeking refuge in Lashkar Gah over the last week, the provincial governor's spokesman Dawood Ahmadi said. Afghan families average around six members.
Some of those had fled from areas around Marjah where British "shaping" operations have been taking place ahead of the Marine offensive.
"On the government side, we are ready to help these people. We are ready to help up to 50,000 displaced people," he said, adding there was a possibility of more people fleeing. Those who fled said they feared for their lives.
"We know that the wrath of the Americans is coming upon us. We left Marjah to save our lives and our families' lives," Khaleq said.
"We have no shelter, no property. We left our farms. We appeal to the government to help us," he said, adding that other families had fled to nearby Sangin and Nawa districts.
Many of those arriving in Lashkar Gah told Reuters they had set up in open-air compounds normally used for storage in the city. Helmand has a harsh desert climate where temperatures can soar in summer and drop below freezing in winter.
"We don't know what will happen to Marjah and to our property. This could go on for months," said Manan.
(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in KABUL, Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR and Adam Entous in ANKARA; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Myra MacDonald)