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US Mounts New Military Offensive Ahead of Afghan Elections - 2004-07-14

The U.S. military has begun a new offensive in Afghanistan to stem insurgent attacks on civilians as the country prepares for its first post-war elections. The Afghan government says it is still willing to give amnesty to former Taleban members who renounce terrorism.

Major Jon Siepmann, a U.S. spokesman, says the new countrywide operation, dubbed "Lightning Resolve," aims to protect civilians against militants opposed to the coming elections.

Afghanistan is due to vote for president on October 9 and for a parliament next spring, replacing the transitional government that has ruled since a U.S.-Afghan alliance ousted the former hard-line Taleban regime in 2001.

Remnants of the Taleban have been waging an armed struggle against the current government. They want to block the elections, which they say are meant to ensure U.S. domination over Afghanistan.

Major Siepmann noted a recent rise in militant attacks and said U.S.-led coalition forces had been expecting it.

"Although these attacks are deplorable, they're not entirely unexpected," he said. "We see a disintegrating organization of terrorists and militants desperate to try and affect the elections process."

Earlier attacks had focused on the military, but Major Siepmann says insurgents are now threatening easier civilian targets.

Recent incidents have included a bombing Sunday in the western Afghan city of Herat, which killed five people, and a series of assassinations of election workers.

Speaking on a visit to neighboring Pakistan, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said "thousands" of ex-Taleban fighters have laid down their arms and would not be punished for their past affiliation with the insurgents.

But he reiterated his government's pledge to prosecute those Taleban followers and their allies who continue to mount terror attacks.

"Those who are fighting against the people of Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan, they are the people who are against normal life - and they are leaving you with no choice but to go after them," he said.

The United States has about 17,000 troops in Afghanistan, while a multinational peacekeeping force maintains about 6,000 in the capital Kabul and the northern city of Kunduz.

But much of the security for the elections is expected to fall to the newly formed Afghan National Army and to various pro-government local militias.