— The Associated Press

MARJAH, Afghanistan — Two U.S. rockets slammed into a home Sunday outside the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah, killing 12 civilians after Afghanistan`s president appealed to NATO to take care in its campaign to seize the town.

Inside Marjah, Marines encountered “death at every corner“ in their second day of a massive offensive to capture this bleak mud-brick city filled with booby traps, hardcore Taliban fighters and civilians unsure where to cast their loyalty.

Marines confronted a fierce sandstorm as they ducked in and out of doorways and hid behind bullet-riddled walls to evade sniper fire. To the north, Army troops fought skirmishes with Taliban fighters, calling in a Cobra attack helicopter against the insurgents.

Insurgents littered the area with booby traps and explosives before the offensive, and the sound of controlled detonations — about three every hour — punctuated the day along with mortars and rocket fire.

“Our children are very scared by the explosions. When will it end?“ asked Zaher, a 25-year-old poppy farmer who like many Afghans goes by one name.

The civilian deaths were a blow to NATO and Afghan efforts to win the support of residents in the Marjah area, a major goal of the biggest ground offensive of the eight-year war.

Marjah, which had a population of 80,000 before the offensive, is a Taliban logistical center and a base for their lucrative opium trade which finances the insurgency.

The rockets were fired by a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, at insurgents who attacked U.S. and Afghan forces, wounding one American and one Afghan, NATO said in a statement. Instead, the projectiles veered 300 yards off target and blasted a house in the Nad Ali district, which includes Marjah, NATO added.

The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, apologized to President Hamid Karzai for “this tragic loss of life“ and suspended use of the sophisticated HIMARS system pending “a thorough review of this incident,“ NATO said.

Before the offensive began Saturday, Karzai pleaded for the Afghan and foreign commanders to be “seriously careful for the safety of civilians.“

Karzai`s spokesman Waheed Omar said the president “is very upset about what happened“ and has been “very seriously conveying his message“ of restraint “again and again.“

Allied officials have reported two coalition deaths so far — one American and one Briton, who were both killed Saturday. Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed in the offensive.

In unrelated incidents in southern Afghanistan, NATO said two service members died Sunday — one from small-arms fire and the other from a roadside bomb explosion.

Marines and Afghan forces met only scattered resistance when they swooped down by helicopter on the impoverished farming community of Marjah before dawn Saturday. A day later, however, Taliban attacks were escalating, with small bands of fighters firing rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at troops moving slowly through the bombs and booby traps hidden in homes, residential compounds and along the rutted streets.

“It seems these guys want to get a bit closer,“ Lt. Carl Quist said as bullets whizzed overhead.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, a top Marine commander in the south, predicted it could take 30 days to clear Marjah because of all the hidden explosives.

Marines said they would have preferred a straight-up fight to what they called the “death at every corner“ crawl they faced as they made their way through the town.

“Basically, if you hear the boom, it`s good. It means you`re still alive after the thing goes off,“ said Lance Cpl. Justin Hennes, 22, of Lakeland, Florida.