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Anti-Taliban drive launched

NATO-led force targets militants in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Thousands of American and Afghan troops unleashed a new offensive against Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan yesterday in an effort to expand the government's reach into the volatile Pakistani border region.

The operation began as a NATO-led force, including 2,500 US soldiers, and is launching heavy attacks on militants in Afghanistan's south. Military officials say hundreds of guerrillas have been killed over the past two weeks.

The new push is ``just one part of a series of coordinated operations placing continuous pressure on Taliban extremists . . . in order to provide security to the population, extend the government to the people, and to increase reconstruction," read a statement from the military.

Dubbed Operation Mountain Fury, the new offensive involves 7,000 US and Afghan soldiers in the central and eastern provinces of Paktika, Khost, Ghazni, Paktya, and Logar, the military said. Fighter planes and helicopters will back the forces.

Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, are known to operate in the region, especially in the area bordering Pakistan, where the reach of the government is weak and militants find sanctuaries.

Highlighting the dangers the troops face, two separate insurgent attacks on a military base in Khost province killed a US-led coalition soldier and wounded another on Friday, the military said. A number of Afghan troops also were wounded, a statement said.

A suspected suicide bomber also blew himself up in the same province when explosives strapped to his body went off prematurely as he approached a police checkpoint Saturday. No one else was injured in the blast, police said.

The US military said troops have been preparing for weeks for Mountain Fury but launched its ``maneuver phase" early yesterday. A separate US-led operation called Big Northern Wind has been under way in neighboring Kunar province's Korangal Valley since late August.

The country is going through its bloodiest phase since the US-led invasion ousted the hard-line Taliban from power in 2001.

According to an Associated Press count based on reports from US, NATO, and Afghan officials, 2,800 people have died so far this year in violence nationwide, including militants and civilians, about 1,300 more than the toll for all of 2005.

Elsewhere, NATO troops and aircraft in the country's southern Uruzgan Province killed 17 suspected insurgents placing roadside bombs near a military base Friday, the alliance said.

About 60 suspected Taliban militants also attacked a police checkpoint in southern Afghanistan Friday, sparking a battle in which four militants died, police said. Afghan security forces and NATO suffered no casualties.

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