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NATO forces launch Afghanistan offensive

Push begins effort against Taliban, drugs

KABUL, Afghanistan -- NATO forces yesterday launched the alliance's largest offensive against insurgents in southern Afghanistan, marking the start of what both sides predict will be an intense round of fighting over the spring and summer.

The operation, centered in volatile Helmand province, will eventually involve 4,500 NATO troops and about 1,000 soldiers from the Afghan national army, military spokesmen said. Commanders declined to specify how many troops took part in the initial push or to elaborate on the fighting that had taken place.

The offensive quickly claimed a casualty, with a coalition soldier reported killed in combat in the south yesterday. The soldier's nationality was not disclosed, nor were any Taliban casualties initially reported.

NATO has been vowing for months to root out thousands of fighters from the Taliban, who together with foreign militants have ensconced themselves in Helmand, the world's largest producer of opium poppies.

Taliban and other militants have for some time been able to move freely in and out of the rugged province, which borders Pakistan. Alliance troops, however, lately have managed to kill several important insurgent figures in pinpoint raids in Helmand, including Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani, slain in a US airstrike in December.

Drug revenues are believed to be funding the strong comeback by the Taliban militia, which had been left scattered and demoralized after the Islamist movement was toppled in 2001 by US-led forces. The allied offensive in part was aimed at disrupting the drug trade, Western military officials said.

Colonel Tom Collins, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said the offensive was centered on "improving security in areas where Taliban extremists, narco-traffickers, and foreign terrorists are currently operating." NATO spokesmen said securing the area would pave the way for resumption of reconstruction projects, which have been largely paralyzed in much of the south by spiraling violence.

Helmand province has proved a particularly difficult venue for the alliance. Last spring, the United States poured nearly 11,000 troops into the north, an engagement that ended with a declaration of victory, followed in subsequent months by a steady re-infiltration of militants.

The province is now thought to contain the greatest numbers of insurgents inside Afghanistan.

In early February, Taliban fighters overran the town of Musa Qala, where a British-brokered accord had halted fighting. Many townspeople fled when the insurgents arrived, but those left behind reported being terrorized by the militants, particularly if they were suspected of having ties to the Afghan government or friendly contacts with NATO forces.

The allied offensive, dubbed Operation Achilles, is open-ended, according to coalition commanders. American, British, Canadian, and Dutch troops were taking part in the fighting.

The US contingent eventually will total about 1,500 troops, spokesmen said, but the number taking part in the offensive's initial phase was not specified.