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US Marines Push Deeper Into Southern Afghan Towns

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NAWA, Afghanistan _ U.S. Marines pushed deeper into Taliban areas of southern Afghanistan on Friday, seeking to cut insurgent supply lines and win over local elders on the second day of the biggest U.S. military operation here since the American-led invasion of 2001.

On the other side of the border, U.S. missiles struck a Pakistani Taliban militant training center and communications center, killing 17 people and wounding nearly 30, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

Both U.S. operations were aimed at what President Barack Obama considers as the biggest dangers in the region: a resurgent Taliban-led insurgency allied with al-Qaida that threatens both nuclear-armed Pakistan and the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

The 4,000-strong U.S. force met little resistance Friday as troops fanned out into villages in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, although one Marine was killed and several others were wounded the day before, U.S. officials said.

Despite minimal contact, the Marines could see militants using flashlights late Thursday to signal one another about American troop movements.

Military spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier said the goal of the Helmand operation was not simply to kill Taliban fighters but to win over the local population _ a difficult task in a region where foreigners are viewed with suspicion.

Marines also hope to cut the routes used by militants to funnel weapons, ammunition and fighters from Pakistan to the Taliban, which mounted an increasingly violent insurgency since its hard-line Islamist government was toppled in 2001 by an international coalition.

The new U.S. operation will test the Obama administration's new strategy of holding territory to let the Afghan government establish a presence in rural areas where Taliban influence is strong.

As Operation Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," entered its second day, Marines took control of the district centers of Nawa and Garmser, and negotiated entry into Khan Neshin, the capital of Rig district, Pelletier said.

In Nawa, Marines met with about 20 Afghan men and boys, seeking to reassure them that the Americans wanted to protect them from the Taliban.

"Are you going to enter our houses?" asked Mohammad Nabi, 25, who was there with five of his younger brothers. "We are afraid that you will leave, and the Taliban will come back."

They also complained that local police were thieves not to be trusted.

Marine officers promised not to enter homes and said they would remain in the area to keep out the Taliban.

One elder with a gray beard asked the Marines whether they would prevent residents from saying Muslim prayers. The troops assured him they would not.

In one village near Nawa, however, the atmosphere was tense.

"When we asked if they had a village elder or mullah for the American commander to talk to, the answer was no," said Capt. Drew Schoenmaker, a Marine company commander. "It's fear of reprisal. Fear and intimidation is one thing the enemy does very well."

Taking territory from the Taliban has always proved easier than holding it. The challenge is especially great in Helmand because it is a center of Afghanistan's thriving opium production, and drug profits feed both the insurgency and corrupt government officials.

On Wednesday, a British lieutenant colonel was killed in an explosion in Helmand. Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, commander of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was the highest-ranking British officer killed in Afghanistan.

A Canadian soldier, 30-year-old Cpl. Nicholas Bulger, was killed Friday in Kandahar province after his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device, the Canadian military said. Five other soldiers were hurt.

The missile attacks in Pakistan on Friday occurred about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) east of Helmand in the rugged South Waziristan region, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The area is a Taliban stronghold close to the Afghan border where Pakistani troops are gearing up for a major offensive.

Two missiles struck an abandoned seminary in the village of Mantoi used as a training base by militants from Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud's group, the officials said. In the other strike, one missile hit an insurgent communications center in the nearby village of Kokat Khel, they said.

In total, 17 people were killed and 27 others were wounded, they said.

However, Maulvi Noor Syed, an aide to Mehsud, told The Associated Press that only three Taliban fighters died in the strikes.

Also Friday, U.S. troops continued looking for an American soldier believed captured by insurgents, Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo said. The soldier and three Afghans with him went missing on Tuesday in the eastern Paktika province

There was no immediate public claim of responsibility from any insurgent group. Much of the area is controlled by the Taliban faction led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, whom the U.S. has accused of masterminding beheadings and suicide bombings including the July 2008 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed some 60 people.

Also Friday, Russia announced that it will allow the U.S. to ship weapons across its territory to Afghanistan, providing Washington an alternative route to supply its forces in the landlocked country.

Up until now, Russia has allowed the U.S. to ship non-lethal supplies across its territory for operations in Afghanistan, and Kremlin officials had suggested further cooperation was likely.

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Straziuso reported from Nawa, Brummitt from Islamabad, Pakistan. Associated Press reporters Fisnik Abrashi, Amir Shah and Noor Khan also contributed to this report from Kabul.