Afghan villagers should stay inside and "keep their heads down" when thousands of U.S. Marines launch a massive assault on a densely populated district in coming days, NATO's civilian representative to Afghanistan said on Tuesday.
U.S.-led NATO forces are planning one of the eight-year-old war's biggest offensives to seize Marjah, a patchwork of desert canals and opium fields that is now the last large Taliban-held bastion in Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province.
The assault, the first since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan in December, is the start of a campaign to impose government control on rebel-held areas this year, before U.S. forces start to draw down in 2011.
Western countries hope military success this year will persuade Taliban fighters to lay down arms and their leaders to accept invitations to talk.
Hundreds of civilians have fled, but most of the area's population, estimated at up to 100,000, remain in their homes in the face of what could be an unprecedented level of fighting.
NATO civilian representative Mark Sedwill said "sufficient" plans were in place to feed and house any civilians who flee, but declined to give details of how many displaced people NATO or the Afghan authorities had the capacity to assist.
"There are good reasons not to go into the exact numbers of details of the operation at this stage," Sedwill, a former British ambassador who arrived this week to take up the beefed-up post of chief NATO civilian in Kabul, told a news briefing.
"What we can say is that we are confident there are sufficient resources there to accommodate and feed anybody who chooses to leave the area," he said.
Helmand's governor, Gulab Mangal, said so far about 164 families have fled the area in recent days.
NATO forces have decided to advise civilians in Marjah not to leave their homes, although they say they do not know whether the assault will lead to heavy fighting.