KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Minivans piled high with mattresses and clothing lined up at checkpoints Sunday as hundreds of civilians fled a Taliban-controlled area ahead of a planned NATO offensive in southern Afghanistan.
The militants, meanwhile, dug in for a fight, reinforcing their positions with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons, according to witnesses.
The U.S. military has not given a start date for the operation to clear insurgents from the Helmand province town of Marjah, the biggest community in the south under insurgent control. But the military has said fighting will start soon and many residents weren't taking any chances.
American aircraft dropped leaflets over Marjah on Sunday warning people of the coming offensive, officers said, and the U.S. fired illumination rounds after sundown, apparently to help spot Taliban positions.
Villagers said the leaflets were aimed primarily at the militants, listing several of their commanders by name and warning fighters to leave the area or be killed.
U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the success of the operation depends on convincing civilians that the government will improve services once the militants are gone.
The offensive in Marjah – a farming community and major opium-production center with a population of 80,000 – will be the first since President Barack Obama announced he was sending 30,000 additional troops.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai discussed the on-going operations in Helmand province in a telephone conversation Sunday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a spokesperson for Brown said.
The spokesperson said they "welcomed the leading role" played by Afghan Security Forces in preparing for the offensive, stressing that "Afghan leadership was fundamental to the success of the operation."
U.S. officials have long telegraphed their intention to seize Marjah. McChrystal said the element of surprise was not as important as letting citizens know that an Afghan government will be there to replace Taliban overlords and drug traffickers.
"We're trying to create a situation where we communicate to them that when the government re-establishes security, they'll have choices," McChrystal told reporters Sunday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said there was no way to count the number of people who have left Marjah because many have moved in with relatives or rented houses in nearby towns instead of registering for emergency relief.
ICRC spokesman Bijan Farnoudi noted a first aid post in Marjah had recorded an increase in patients with battle wounds in the last few weeks.
He said the organization was poised to react quickly if a refugee crisis arises. "The burden on families taking in relatives for an extended amount of time can be significant," he said.
Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, the head of the provincial refugee department, estimated that 90 to 100 families had left the Marjah area because of concerns about the operation. Afghan families have an average of six members, according to private relief groups.
Refugee officials held an emergency meeting last week and decided to stockpile food and erect five big tents on a school compound in the nearby provincial capital Lashkar Gah to accommodate any influx, he said.
Mohammad Hakim, a 55-year-old tribal leader in Marjah, said fear has risen over the past two weeks and he knows at least 20 families who had left. He himself planned to take his wife, nine sons, four daughters and grandchildren to live with relatives in Lashkar Gah.
"Everybody is worried that they'll get caught in the middle when this operation starts," he said in a telephone interview.
Hakim said he was worried about the length of the operation.
"I can stay for one or two weeks," he said. "But if I have to leave my agriculture land for months and months, then how will I feed my family?"
Afghan and NATO officers had visited village elders to encourage them to make sure people stay inside their homes and avoid road travel once the operation starts.
The Taliban were not preventing villagers from leaving but were digging trenches and carrying in new heavy weapons on motorbikes.
Many people were afraid to leave their fields and brave the bad winter roads, villagers said.
Ghulan Nabi, a wheat and poppy farmer with seven children in Marjah, said his family planned to leave soon and wait out the offensive in a nearby district.
"We have a good house, a nice life, but now I will have to rent a home," he said. "But we want peace and security. We don't care who comes here. We just want peace in our village."
If the U.S. and NATO strategy is to succeed in Afghanistan, they also need to train Afghan government forces to take over their own security so the international troops can eventually withdraw. But relations between foreign and Afghan forces have often been uneasy.
In a sign of those strains, NATO-led forces said Sunday they had arrested a deputy provincial police chief they accused of helping insurgents place roadside bombs north of Kabul.
Officials in Kapisa province defended Attaullah Wahab, saying he was an honest and good officer.
NATO said Wahab was arrested Friday in the Kapisa provincial capital of Mahmud-i-Raqi for involvement in the storage, distribution and planting of roadside bombs as well as corruption related to road reconstruction.
Telegraphing the Marjah offensive has raised concerns that the Taliban might plant more bombs – known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs – to inflict casualties on the attackers.
"The number of IEDs around the country went very high in 2009, so we do expect a very large number of IEDs," McChrystal said.
Reflecting the danger, a bomb detonated by remote control struck an Afghan patrol in Kandahar on Sunday, killing three policemen, according to a local policeman, Mohammad Razaq.
Two Swedish soldiers and a locally hired interpreter were killed by small arms fire near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
Gamel reported from Kabul. Associated Press Writers Rahim Faiez and Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Alfred de Montesquiou at Camp Shorabak contributed to this report.