KABUL (Feb. 16, 2010) -- The clearing phase of Operation Moshtarak in southern Afghanistan continues as Afghan and coalition troops experienced sporadic fire fights with the enemy, officials reported yesterday.

Afghan Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, Minister of Defense; Mohammed Hanif Atmar, Minister of Interior; Mohammed Gulab Mangal, Governor of Helmand Province; Brig. Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, Afghan National Army commander of the 205th Corps ; and U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, International Security Assistance Force commander, briefed reporters in Kabul yesterday on the ongoing operation.

McChrystal said the Afghan-led operation targeting Taliban and other militants in Helmand province highlights the strong partnership between U.S., coalition and Afghan forces.

Wardak said the operation's objective is not to kill insurgents, but to provide security, governance and development for the people of Helmand province. He called on insurgents to put down their weapons and join the reintegration process. He also said that sufficient security forces will remain following the clearing operation to provide an environment conducive to development.

During the press conference, Atmar indicated that initial reports suggest that insurgents had fired on combined forces Feb. 14, while holding civilians captive in a compound. The insurgents apparently used this location to deliver accurate, direct fire at combined forces. Not knowing there were civilians present, the combined forces responded using a heavy weapon, resulting in a tragic loss of civilian lives. Atmar said there was a meeting with people in the area and that an apology has been made. The village elders voiced their support for the Afghan government.

Mangal said he appreciated the good coordination between Afghan security forces and ISAF troops during the operation. The governor said the government does not currently have control of Baghran, Washir and Deshow districts out of the 13 districts in Helmand province. Yet, Mangal said he is optimistic that the government soon would take charge in these areas. He also appealed to insurgents to join the peace process.

Indicating there still is resistance from insurgents operating in Marjah, Zazai expressed confidence they soon will be defeated. Local elders in Nad-e Ali, he said, have expressed their support for the Afghan government during shuras, or meetings, held in the area.

The goal of Moshtarak - Dari for "together" - is for the combined forces to support the Afghan government in asserting its authority in central Helmand province, thereby demonstrating the government's commitment to the people living there.

The operation is being conducted at the request of the Afghan government and the governor of Helmand province. The security forces involved are serving side by side, representing partnership in strength.

(From an International Security Assistance Force Joint Command news release.)