OUTSIDE GARMSER, AFGHANISTAN — Marines in helicopters and Humvees flooded into a Taliban-held town in southern Afghanistan's most violent province early today in the first major American operation in the region in years.
Several hundred Marines, many of them veterans of the Iraq war, pushed into the town of Garmser in an operation to drive out militants, stretching NATO's presence into an area littered with poppy fields.
U.S. commanders say Taliban fighters have been expecting an assault and have placed roadside bombs. It wasn't known how much resistance the Marines would face in Garmser, whose main marketplace is closed because of the Taliban threat.
The assault in Helmand province -- backed by U.S. artillery in the desert and fighter aircraft in the sky -- is the first major task undertaken by the 2,300 Marines in the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which arrived last month from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for a seven-month deployment. An additional 1,200 Marines arrived to train Afghan police.
Maj. Tom Clinton, the American commander at Forward Operating Base Dwyer, a British outpost 10 miles west of Garmser, said the Taliban had undoubtedly seen the Marines moving into the area.
The mission is the first carried out by U.S. forces this far south in Helmand province in years. An operation last year to take back the Taliban-held town of Musa Qala involved U.S., British and Afghan forces.