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US Marines launch Afghan offensive

THOUSANDS of United States Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into Taliban-controlled villages in southern Afghanistan yesterday in the first major operation under President Barack Obama's strategy to stabilize the country.

The offensive started shortly after 1am yesterday in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest opium poppy-growing area.

The goal is to clear insurgents from the region before the nation's August 20 presidential election.

The Marines have not suffered any serious casualties and have seen only a sporadic resistance, said Lieutenant Abe Sipe.

"The enemy has chosen to withdraw rather than engage for the most part. We had a couple of heat casualties, but not deemed serious in nature at this time."

The operation came as the US military announced that one of its soldiers was missing and believed captured by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday.

Officials described the offensive - dubbed Khanjar or "Strike of the Sword" - as the largest and fastest-moving of the war's new phase and the biggest Marine offensive since the one in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.

It involves nearly 4,000 newly arrived Marines plus 650 Afghan forces. British forces last week led similar, but smaller, missions to clear out insurgents in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province.

"Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," Marine Corps Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said.

Pakistan's army said it had moved troops to its stretch of the Afghan border opposite Helmand to try to stop any militants from fleeing the offensive. US and Pakistani officials have expressed concern that stepped-up operations in southern Afghanistan could push insurgents across the border.

Transport helicopters carried hundreds of Marines into the village of Nawa, 30 kilometers south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, in a region where no US or other NATO troops have operated in large numbers.

The troops took many insurgents by surprise, dropping behind Taliban lines, said Captain Drew Schoenmaker, who commands Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

"We are kind of forging new ground here," he said. "We are going to a place nobody has been before."

A Marine unit in Nawa traded gunfire with a group of some 20 insurgents, while Afghan troops exchanged small arms fire with militants after they were attacked with rocket propelled grenades fired from several houses. A Cobra helicopter circling overhead for most of the day fired rockets at a tree line.

Southern Afghanistan is a Taliban stronghold but also a region where Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seeking votes from fellow Pashtun tribesmen.

The US is deploying 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in time for the elections and expects the total number of US forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq.


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