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Afghans raise flag over once-pivotal Taliban town

MARJAH, Afghanistan - Afghan officials raised the national flag over Marjah yesterday, asserting government control even as Marines searched for militant holdouts. Kabul also confirmed the arrest of another top Taliban leader, part of a roundup that could further strain the insurgent movement.

About 700 men in turbans and traditional caps gathered in a central market for the flag-raising ceremony, during which Abdul Zahir Aryan was installed as the top Afghan official in this town of 80,000 in Helmand province. The provincial governor told the crowd that authorities were eager to listen to requests from the townspeople and provide them with basic services that they didn't have under the Taliban.

Taliban fighters still control about 25 percent of the 80-square-mile area in and around the town nearly two weeks after U.S. and Afghan forces launched their attack to seize Marjah, a major Taliban logistics and supply center and the largest community in the south under insurgent control.

Marines and Afghan soldiers slogged through bomb-laden fields of northern Marjah yesterday in search of an estimated 100 Taliban and foreign fighter holdouts, the last significant pocket of insurgents left in the town. Progress was slowed by difficult terrain with no roads and many hidden mines.

Several residents told Marines the Taliban were falling back and trying to delay the allied advance with hidden bombs.

"I'd expect they can't keep this up for long," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, a company commander in the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. He predicted the insurgents will soon hold their ground and fight.

Despite the insurgent holdouts, enough of the town has been secured for NATO and Afghan authorities to begin the most difficult part of the mission - restoring local government and rushing in public services to win the confidence of the population to dry up support for a Taliban return.

Aryan, the chief administrator, cannot work out of the main government building because the Taliban rigged it with bombs and booby traps.

"When an area has been liberated . . . we provide governance immediately, we provide development assistance, we provide the local community with a better livelihood," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at an alliance meeting in Spain.

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