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The first shots came from the north, sending Marines ducking into the nearest ditch -- some filled with putrid water. More shots rang out from the southwest: a possible ambush from two sides.

The southern Afghan town of Marjah is still contested even though U.S., NATO and Afghan forces wrested control from the Taliban in a three-week offensive in February and early March. Marines go on patrol to meet with village elders about jobs programs or starting schools, all part of a campaign to win over the population.

But the troops still have to watch out for hidden bombs or Taliban snipers.

On Friday morning, about a dozen Marines and a handful of Afghan soldiers trudged through the fields on a routine patrol when they heard a few gunshots in the distance. Over the radio they heard that Afghan soldiers had fired on some men carrying suspiciously large bags. The Marines went to check out the report.

Suddenly, the handful of farmers working their fields disappeared. Shots rang out from two sides.

The radio crackled: Shots were coming from a building known as "compound 19." Squad commander Sgt. John Trickler said he'd check it out. Five Marines and four Afghan soldiers went forward but found the building and those around it deserted. An ammunition belt and spent cartridges lay on he ground.

After the shooting stopped, a few children reappeared outside houses and in nearby fields. Afghan soldiers found a bearded man and used his white turban to tie his wrists behind his back. Trickler had met the man a few days earlier and hoped to get information from him about the shooting.

The dark-skinned man trembled as he stood under a blazing sun answering questions. He said that the Taliban had warned people in the area to leave. His brother had passed the message to him, but he had stayed behind with his family because he didn't want to abandon his house.

Trickler reminded him of a telephone number the Marines have given out for people to call in tips of Taliban activity. He told the man to call next time and let him go.

"Now that we've kicked them out, they're going to be coming back in small teams like that," Trickler said.

A boy came up on the road and said he had seen the Taliban. He said their weapons were rusty and covered with dirt, as if they had been recently dug out of hiding places.

Trickler asked him why he didn't call the tip line. The boy -- who looked around 13 years old -- said he had tried, but nobody answered.

A check of the cell phone confirmed his story: He had called but not gotten through.