By Abdul Malek
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Taliban militants are digging in ahead of a major NATO operation in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, in one of the biggest offensives in the eight-year-old war.
U.S. Marines are set to launch an operation within days to take Marjah, an area of lush farmland criss-crossed by canals in the centre of Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province.
The offensive will be the first major show of force since President Barack Obama ordered in 30,000 extra troops.
The operation has been flagged in advance in the hope militants will give up the fight in what commanders say is the last big Taliban enclave in the province.
"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.
But some of the villagers escaping Marjah in fear of their lives said 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 villager Abdul Khaleq after arriving in Lashkar Gah with his family.
The United States and its allies, facing dwindling public support for the war, are hoping a big military push will convince the Taliban to accept a peace deal.
But U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke dismissed speculation Washington, which wants to start drawing down troops in 2011, was already holding talks with the Taliban.
"... I want to state very clearly that our nation is not involved in any direct contacts with the Taliban," he told reporters at a security conference in Munich, Germany.
Holbrooke said in principle negotiations and military operations could run in parallel, citing as examples the efforts to end the Vietnam war and the conflict in former Yugoslavia.
"But it must go hand in hand with security success. It is not an alternative to the military campaign. It requires military success to make progress."
"THE WRATH OF THE AMERICANS"
The Taliban have stepped up their fight against foreign troops in recent years, although they have largely shied away from face-to-face combat, relying instead on homemade bombs.
But 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 airplanes, but we have Islamic zeal. That is the power we have to fight against the infidels," he said.
Around 100 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.
"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," the villager, Khaleq, said.
In Munich, Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed a call for an end to civilian casualties in Afghanistan and a halt to military raids on Afghan villages by international forces.
Civilian casualties had been declining recently but "we'd like to see civilian casualties go completely," he said.
Civilian deaths and injuries inflicted during operations by international forces have caused deep anger among Afghans and analysts say that encouraged people to join the Taliban.
"We believe that the war on terror is not in the Afghan villages and homes. We believe this war on terror is in the sanctuaries, training grounds and the motivational factors and financial resources beyond the Afghan borders," Karzai said.
"Therefore ending operations in Afghan villages is what the Afghan people are seeking as a priority: ending raids at night on Afghan homes, ending the arrests of Afghans in their homes."
DEPUTY POLICE CHIEF ARRESTED
Washington and its allies are keen to train up Afghan forces so they can take more responsibility for maintaining security. But new training teams are urgently needed if Afghan security forces are to grow to a target of 300,000 personnel in 2011.
Defence Secretary Gates said on Sunday NATO allies could make up a shortfall of trainers by reshuffling rather than expanding their existing troop commitments.
But in a sign of the challenge Western troops face in setting up Afghan security forces they can trust, NATO said on Sunday that an Afghan provincial deputy police chief had been arrested as part of a ring that planted roadside bombs.
Western governments acknowledge that the police force is plagued by corruption, incompetence and infiltration by insurgents, undermining their efforts to transfer security.
International troops and Afghan security forces arrested the deputy police chief of mainly French-patrolled Kapisa province, Colonel Attaullah, in the province's Mahmud Raqi district, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in Kabul, Ismail Sameem in Kandahar, Adam Entous in Ankara and William Maclean in Munich; Writing by Jonathon Burch and Myra MacDonald; editing by Robin Pomeroy)