Kotalak, Afghanistan (AFP) Oct 11, 2009
An elderly Afghan woman, her hair dyed red and a black shawl draped over her shoulders, shouts as she aims a gun at US Marines who are arresting her husband as a suspected Taliban insurgent.
A Marine points his assault rifle at her and is ready to pull the trigger until the woman drops her rusty pistol.
Members of the 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines, accompanied by Afghan soldiers, were sweeping villages for militants early this week as part of Operation Germinate.
The aim of the operation was to reduce the threat of home-made bombs -- or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- hidden along the Bhuji Bhast Pass, which slices through a rocky valley in southwestern Farah province.
At least 30 villagers have been killed in the area by IEDs since the middle of this year, while dozens of Marines have sustained injuries ranging from concussion to fractures.
IEDs are the biggest killer of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan.
"It's to disrupt Taliban forces in the Bhuji Bhast Pass because within about a five-kilometre radius of here we have hit about 30 IEDs in the last five months, and that's just us," said Lieutenant Shane Harden, 29, of Germinate.
"We are trying to instill in the people of these villages a responsibility for their own security.
"(The insurgents are) not only killing American Marines but their own people. In order for this country to change they must stand up to the Taliban."
In the first two days of Operation Germinate, two IEDs were made safe and another three were found.
Back at the mud-brick compound in Kotalak -- one of a number of hostile villages lining the Bhuji Bhast Pass -- the Marines are arresting the elderly woman's husband and one-armed brother.
A search of their home turned up 15 bags of ammonium nitrate and 12 bags of sugar, common ingredients for making IEDs, as well as ammunition.
As the camouflage-clad Marines search the compounds -- mostly finding scrawny farm animals and dried poppies -- the village women in sequined burkas huddle in a corner, away from the eyes of the men.
"So far the operation has been pretty successful. I think we've definitely disrupted activity. This is a good find," said Harden.
A thorough search of the village also turns up grenades, Soviet-era rifles, more ammunition and Taliban propaganda.
Hundreds of Marines from the nearby military base at Golestan arrived here among the corn and cannabis fields by chopper and armoured vehicles before dawn.
As they headed to Kotalak at sunrise, militants fired several machine-gun rounds from the surrounding mountains until US choppers circled overhead.
One villager said insurgents used his village to make IEDs, coming down from the mountains by night and planting the bombs in the morning before retreating to the hills.
The Marines' company commander said he plans to hold a meeting with all village elders in the area to explain what his men are doing and to urge the locals to stop the insurgents using their homes as bomb factories.
"We are doing this because the IEDs here have got so bad so our only option is to sweep the village," Staff Sergeant Todd Bowers told 35-year-old Naza Modeen in Segosa village, near Kotalak.
Modeen, who sat and watched while Marines picked through his sparse belongings, told Bowers through a military interpreter: "It's good that you're here."
"We need good security in our village because the people here don't agree -- some of them like the Taliban. We don't have anybody in charge. We don't have 'elders', everybody says they're older and in charge," he said.
As the Marines tried to bed down for the night in one village compound, machine-gun and rocket fire from the nearby hills were a constant reminder of the proximity of the enemy.
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Golestan, Afghanistan (AFP) Oct 9, 2009
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