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Full Range of Combat Power Being Used in New Afghan Offensive

British-led coalition forces have launched a new offensive in southeastern Afghanistan aimed at seeking out Taleban and al-Qaida bases. Military officials say more than 1,000 Afghan, British, Canadian and United States soldiers are participating in the operation.

A spokesman for the British forces says the troops are deploying in rugged mountain terrain southeast of Kabul. Brigadier Roger Lane Thursday told reporters at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, that the purpose of the operation is to destroy al-Qaida bunkers and arms caches and to capture or kill enemy fighters.

The spokesman says troops and equipment with a full range of combat power have been deployed for the operation. He says it is an area that has not been searched before by coalition ground forces. The Afghan Interior Ministry says several hundred Afghan troops are also taking part in the offensive, code named "Operation Snipe."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said during a visit to Afghanistan five days ago that he expects a spring offensive from remnants of the ousted Taleban government and its al-Qaida allies. But he said coalition forces will pursue these fighters until they no longer pose a threat.

A small number of U.S. special forces are also reportedly in Pakistan helping Pakistani troops search for Taleban and al-Qaida fighters on that side of the border.

The region has also been the scene of clashes in recent days between local militias. The capital of Paktia Province, Gardez, on Saturday was hit by hundreds of rockets that killed two dozen people and wounded scores of others.

U.N. officials say the tensions are affecting the return of thousands of refugees to the region.

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Yusuf Hassan, says because of the in-fighting, his agency is discouraging refugees from returning to the provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost.

"A large number of the refugees in Pakistan are from those three provinces," he said. "So we'd like to see a quick end to the problems there so that people can return back to their homes if they wish."

There were also clashes two days ago in northern Afghanistan, near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. But U.N. officials Thursday announced that rival commanders have agreed to cease hostilities and form a high-level security commission for this region.