Thu, Jun 15, 2006 - Page 6 News List

US pours more troops into Afghanistan

SEEKING THE INITIATIVE Coalition and Afghan troops aim to squeeze Taliban fighters in four volatile provinces

AP , MUSA QALA, AFGHANISTAN

US specialist Christopher Saenz, from the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, looks out at the landscape during a patrol outside the village of Musa Qala, Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, on Tuesday. More US soldiers are moving into the region in support of military operation Mountain Thrust in southern Afghanistan.

PHOTO: AP

The US-led coalition is unleashing more than 11,000 troops to attack militants in the southern mountains of Afghanistan, the biggest offensive since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The push starting Thursday by US, British, Canadian and Afghan troops aims to squeeze Taliban fighters in four volatile provinces. It will focus on southern Uruzgan and northeastern Helmand, where the military says most of the forces are massed.

The offensive comes amid Afghan and coalition efforts to curb the fiercest Taliban-led violence since the hard-line Islamic government was toppled for harboring Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

The US military announced Wednesday that an American soldier was killed in Helmand's Musa Qala district Tuesday after his logistics patrol came under rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire attack. Another coalition soldier was also killed in combat in the eastern Kunar region.

The force of more than 11,000 troops is by far the largest deployed in Afghanistan for one operation since the 2001 invasion. Previous offensives in the country have involved several thousand soldiers.

Major General Benjamin Freakley, US operational commander in Afghanistan, said coalition and Afghan troops would attack "Taliban enemy sanctuary or safe haven areas" in Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.

"Right now ... they'll be in one area, they'll move out of that area, they'll conduct an attack in another area, then move back to a safe haven," he said last week in an interview at Bagram, the US military headquarters north of Kabul.

"This is our approach to put simultaneous pressure on the enemy's networks, to cause their leaders to make mistakes, and to attack those leaders," Freakley said.

He spoke to AP ahead of an AP embed with the military in Helmand province, where the US is establishing a new forward operating base in support of the offensive.

The offensive, called Operation Mountain Thrust, began May 15 with attacks on Taliban command and control and support networks. Mid-May marked a sharp increase in firefights between militants and coalition forces.

According to US military and Afghan figures, about 550 people, mostly militants, have been killed since mid-May in the fiercest fighting since the ouster of the Taliban.

The fighting included up to 200 Taliban rebels attacking Musa Qala before fleeing from hundreds of coalition and Afghan forces.

Conditions permitting, Thursday will mark what the military is calling the start of major and decisive anti-Taliban operations lasting through the summer. Reconstruction projects will also play a major role in Mountain Thrust.

Military spokesman Lietenant Colonel Paul Fitzpatrick said he could not recall a bigger military operation in Afghanistan in the past four years.

"This is a big operation -- 10,000 soldiers over the course of a month. But this is not a beach landing," he said. "I can't say there will be a major battle on [June] 15, but if there isn't, there will be in the days following that."

Operation Mountain Thrust will involve about 2,300 US conventional and special forces, 3,300 British troops, 2,200 Canadians, about 3,500 Afghan soldiers and air support troops, Freakley said. There will also be coalition air support.

Some American forces will rotate out once the operation is over at the end of the summer, while the British and Canadians will stay on.

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