KABUL, Afghanistan, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- U.S. and British troops in Afghanistan prepared to retake Marjah, the last Taliban stronghold in the dangerous Helmand province, as the militants also dug in.
The Taliban vowed Sunday to defend the town of 80,000 against the NATO forces, saying they have been joined by foreign fighters keen to fight the coalition forces, the Financial Times reported.
Mullah Sharadulldine, a Taliban officer who claimed to lead 145 men, told the newspaper by telephone, "We are well prepared to fight any kind of attacks by the infidels."
The militants' defenses may include mines and booby traps concealed in irrigation ditches.
The report, while noting it will be the first big operation since U.S. President Barack Obama announced a 30,000 troop surge in December, quoted the U.S. military as saying it sees the offensive as a test of both the Taliban's resolve and the performance of the Afghan security forces.
Capturing Marjah is part of the military's strategy for setting up a contiguous security zone in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, thereby allowing the Afghan government to regain control, officials said.
The report said many residents have already left town -- heading for other places, including Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah -- to escape the military campaign.