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Elite British Troops Begin Major Afghan Operation - 2002-04-16

Elite British troops in Afghanistan have begun their first major combat mission since the Falklands (Malvinas) war two decades ago. The troops are joining ongoing coalition efforts to flush remnants of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and the Taleban out of eastern Afghanistan.

Troops from Britain's main fighting force, 45 commandos of the Royal Marines, are leading the sweep of the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan with American and Afghan forces.

It is not known how many Royal Marines are involved in the operation. But hundreds of commandos have been deployed to Afghanistan in recent weeks to create a force of 1,700 soldiers, Britain's largest combat deployment since the Gulf war.

Coalition officials at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, say the mission actually began several days ago. They would not elaborate on the troops' location or how long the mission will last. The U.S. military said an undisclosed number of its Special Forces soldiers are accompanying the Royal Marines.

British military spokesman Tom Rounds said while the operation is focused on destroying the al-Qaida network and its Taleban supporters, it is not a follow-up to last month's "Operation Anaconda."

Eight U.S. soldiers were killed during Anaconda's 12-day assault on al-Qaida positions in eastern Paktia province near Pakistan. "No, no, no, this is normal tasking through coalition command structure, allocated to the British. Our forces have come into theater. We have got the bulk of our people deployed now here and it was a good opportunity for us to get on the ground, get acclimatized, and have our troops doing what they came here to do," Mr. Rounds said.

He said the main goal of the mission is to make sure that the elite Royal Marines can work effectively with other allied forces on the ground. Coalition forces are said to be up above the snow line at about 3,000 meters in the mountains, where the rugged terrain and freezing temperatures pose as much hazard to the troops as al-Qaida and Taleban fighters.

Meanwhile, Afghan interim government leader, Hamid Karzai, left Kabul for Rome, taking several ministers from his administration with him. They are expected to return to Afghanistan with the former king on Thursday.

Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, has been living in exile in Rome since he was deposed in 1978. He is returning to Afghanistan to preside over the opening of the grand national council, the Loya Jirga, on June 10. His aides say he will then retire as a private citizen in Kabul.