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NATO Launches Major New Offensive in Southern Afghanistan


NATO forces in Afghanistan have launched their largest offensive yet in the battle against the five-year-old Taleban insurgency. From Islamabad, VOA Correspondent Benjamin Sand reports.

NATO and Afghan forces launched Operation Achilles in the north part of Helmand province - deep inside the Taleban's traditional stronghold in the south of the country.

NATO's regional commander, Major General Ton Van Loon says the offensive will eventually include more than 5500 NATO and Afghan troops. He stressed the joint force will take special care to avoid civilian casualties in the affected areas.

"We know that Taleban extremists have regularly sought refuge in your communities and have used honest citizens and children as human shields to protect themselves," he said. " I assure you we recognize how devious the enemy is and as Operation Achilles brings more troops in your region, let there be no doubt that we are only going after the extremists.

The general's comments follow two incidents this week in which civilians were killed in gunfights between international security forces and insurgents.

The operation is NATO's largest military offensive since taking over Afghanistan's security operations last year.

But it is by no means the first major campaign in an area where the Taleban insurgency is reportedly gaining ground. More than 11,000 U.S.-led troops launched Operation Mountain Thrust in the same province last May. Despite killing an estimated 1100 militants, U.S. officials concede the mission failed to permanently dislodge Taleban insurgents from Helmand.

Afghan authorities say the Taleban have a number of strategic bases inside the province, including the town of Musa Qala which they captured February first and continue to control.

The Taleban was ousted from power by U.S.-led troops in 2001 for harboring al-Qaida terrorist chief Osama bin Laden.

International soldiers remain in the country to help the democratically elected government try to establish peace and security.

General Van Toon says the new NATO operation targets Taleban militants as well as powerful drug traffickers active in the volatile region.

Monday, the United Nations released a new report saying they expect a sharp rise in opium production in the lawless south. The U.N. says the illegal drug trade is clearly helping finance the Taleban and creating a so-called "cancer of insurgency." Afghanistan produces an estimated 90 percent of the world's opium supply.

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