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U.S. poised to seize Taliban stronghold

NEAR MARJAH, Afghanistan - U.S. and Afghan forces pushed yesterday to the edge of the southern town of Marjah, poised to seize the major Taliban supply and drug-smuggling stronghold in hope of building public support by providing aid and services once the insurgents are gone.

Meanwhile, a series of avalanches engulfed a mountain pass, trapping hundreds of people in their buried cars and killing as many as 64 people so far, authorities said Tuesday. Bulldozers, ambulances and helicopters were in a massive effort to reach those stuck in snow along the 12,700-feet-high Salang Pass, which links Kabul with the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

On the battlefield, instead of keeping the offensive secret, Americans have been talking about it for weeks, expecting the Taliban would flee. But the militants appear to be digging in, apparently believing that even a losing fight would rally supporters and sabotage U.S. plans if the battle proves destructive.

No date for the main attack has been announced, but all signs indicate it will come soon. It will be the first major offensive since President Barack Obama announced in December he was sending 30,000 reinforcements, and it will serve as a significant test of the new U.S. strategy for turning back the Taliban.

About 400 U.S. troops from the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade and about 250 Afghan soldiers moved into positions northeast of Marjah before dawn yesterday as U.S. Marines pushed to the outskirts of the town.

Automatic rifle fire rattled in the distance as the Marines dug in for the night with temperatures below freezing. The occasional thud of mortar shells and the sharp blast of rocket-propelled grenades fired by the Taliban pierced the air.

"They're trying to bait us, don't get sucked in," yelled a Marine sergeant, warning his troops not to venture closer to the town.

The U.S. goal is to take control quickly of the farming community, located in a vast, irrigated swath of land in Helmand province, 380 miles southwest of Kabul. Over time, American commanders believe public services will undermine the appeal of the Taliban among their fellow Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country and the base of the insurgents' support.

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