Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and The Outskirts Of Marja, Afghanistan -- As U.S. Marines battled Sunday to consolidate their hold on the southern Afghanistan town of Marja, Western commanders reported the first serious setback of the 2-day-old offensive: the deaths of a dozen Afghan civilians in an errant rocket strike.
At least four of those killed were children, an Afghan government official said.
U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the deaths. The fatalities marked the first instance of large-scale civilian casualties since the start of fighting in Nad Ali, the district in central Helmand province where Marja lies.
Civilian casualties are among the most contentious issues between Karzai and his Western allies. A day earlier, as the assault on Marja began, Karzai had demanded "absolute caution" on the part of coalition troops to avoid hurting or killing noncombatants.
Before the start of fighting, U.S. commanders had said repeatedly that civilian safety was their top priority. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's International Security Assistance Force said it was immediately suspending use of the weapons system used in the deadly strike.
The military said in a statement that coalition troops were aiming at a compound from which Taliban militants were firing on Western and Afghan forces, but the two rockets missed their target by about 300 yards, instead hitting a compound where civilians were sheltering.
The Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the incident, said those killed, including the children, were thought to be members of the same extended family.
The incident cast a pall over what military officials had been describing as a successful start to the offensive, which is among the largest battles of the war to date and the biggest joint operation by Western and Afghan troops. Marines on Sunday continued their push, coming under sporadic but sometimes intense fire.
Afghan officials said 27 militants had been killed so far in the offensive, which began before dawn Saturday. NATO reported the death of a Western service member in an explosion Sunday in southern Afghanistan but did not give the nationality involved or say whether the fatality occurred in the course of the assault. A Marine and a British soldier were killed Saturday.
The Marja operation is the first major military confrontation since President Obama late last year ordered the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops. In coming months, it will also be a crucial test of Afghanistan's ability, with NATO's help, to maintain order and governance in areas the coalition succeeds in clearing of Taliban.
On the second full day of fighting, the Taliban and other insurgents remained a shadowy enemy: Western commanders still do not have a solid estimate of how many Islamist militants remain in the farming town and its environs, which for years had served as a Taliban sanctuary.
Estimates before the assault ranged from 400 to around 1,000 Taliban and other fighters in the town. Perhaps 150 of those were believed to be "hard-core" militants, including fighters with possible links to Al Qaeda who would probably fight to the death rather than slip away.
Some Taliban fighters fled before the battle. The Marines had widely publicized their plans to take the town in hopes of driving off less committed insurgents and thus limiting close-quarters combat that could end up harming civilians.
Insurgents avoided massing for a confrontation, instead staging scattered hit-and-run attacks. The Marines' commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, had to duck sniper fire Sunday as he was visiting a front-line position, the Associated Press reported.
For the advancing troops, it was a rough, dirty slog -- and a slow one. Companies of U.S. and Afghan forces moved through the streets, carefully detonating homemade bombs in their path. Plumes of dusty smoke arose from the blast sites. Commanders acknowledge that such "clearing" could go on for days or weeks.
The town and its outskirts are thickly planted with the bombs, which are the insurgents' weapon of choice against much better-armed coalition troops. Advancing forces have uncovered some major caches of bomb-making components, including detonation cords and hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate, an agricultural chemical recently banned by Afghan authorities because it was being so widely used to make bombs.
Coalition forces on Sunday laid claim to more key sites, including strategically located walled compounds. Marines guarding one such makeshift outpost came under insurgent fire when Afghan troops inside the compound raised their national flag, the Reuters news agency reported.
About 15,000 U.S., Afghan, British and other coalition troops are taking part in the offensive.