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US launches Afghanistan offensive

2,000 troops hit at Taliban, Qaeda

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The US military launched its largest postwar offensive against Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents yesterday, sending 2,000 soldiers into a lawless swath of Afghanistan to put down a wave of attacks.

The operation began as Afghan and UN officials warned that one of the military's most tragic blunders -- the weekend killing of nine children in an airstrike -- could drive more Afghans into the arms of the rebels.

Operation Avalanche, in southern and eastern Afghanistan, "is the largest we have ever designed," Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty told reporters at the coalition military headquarters at Bagram, north of the capital Kabul. The enemy "isn't going to know when we hit, he isn't going to know what we're doing."

"Right now, I'd say there's four infantry battalions involved" of around 500 men each, Hilferty said. Some Afghan National Army and militia forces also will be involved, he said.

Hilferty gave no details about the operation, including when it started or what provinces were targeted.

Taliban fighters have stepped up attacks -- particularly against aid workers and civilians -- in provinces near the Pakistani border and in Ghazni and Zabul provinces south of the capital.

One Pakistani engineer was shot dead yesterday and his Afghan driver was wounded when gunmen attacked their vehicle on the main Kabul-Kandahar highway in Ghazni province. A second Pakistani engineer was missing, and two escaped.

A French UN worker was gunned down last month in Ghazni and three international workers were kidnapped in past weeks.

The wave of Taliban attacks against aid workers, US soldiers and Afghan government officials has belied American claims that it is winning the war to stabilize the country. Two years after the fall of the Taliban, some 11,700 soldiers -- mainly Americas -- remain in Afghanistan on combat missions against the Taliban and their allies, remnants of Al Qaeda and followers of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

But Saturday's airstrike -- which targeted a local Taliban militant but killed children playing in a village in Ghazni province -- highlighted the risk that a heavy US military hand may only alienate Afghan civilians.

"Every innocent who is killed has brothers, uncles, sisters and nephews -- and behind them the tribe," said Sadokhan Ambarkhil, deputy governor of Paktika, one of the most dangerous provinces for coalition troops and their Afghan allies. "If 10 people are killed, how many people are saddened?"

The warplane attack also was criticized outside Afghanistan.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was "profoundly saddened" by the children's deaths and called for a thorough investigation. "The fight against terrorism cannot be won at the expense of innocent lives," Fred Eckhard, Annan's spokesman, said in New York.

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