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Major Afghan assault claims first Taliban casualties

13 lutego, 2010

A massive assault force taking on the Taliban in southern Afghanistan claimed its first kills on Saturday within hours of launching the biggest operation since US President Barack Obama ordered a troop surge, an Afghan army commander said.

Five militants were killed soon after US-led troops helicoptered into Marjah in the poppy-growing belt of Helmand province, said Sher Mohammad Zazai, commander of the Afghan Army\'s 205 Corps.

"According to initial reports, five enemy have been killed," he said.

"Two were killed in one location, three in another. They were killed in face-to-face fighting," he told reporters by video link from Helmand\'s capital of Lashkar Gah.

As the assault got under way, a suicide bomber struck in Kandahar city, capital of neighbouring Kandahar province where the insurgency is also raging.

His explosives-laden motorbike killed a US solider when he detonated it near a military patrol, an Afghan army officer said.

"There was a suicide bombing near the vehicles of US forces. One US soldier was killed, three others were wounded and an Afghan civilian was killed and four others were wounded," said Captain Abdul Rahman, who was near the site on the outskirts of Kandahar city.

NATO said it was unable to immediately confirm the reported death.

A spokesman for NATO\'s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told AFP: "We are aware of an explosive device in the area and we are investigating."

Chinook helicopters filled the pre-dawn skies over Marjah as 15,000 troops led by US Marines launched the first major offensive since Obama\'s new troop surge aimed at bringing an end to the eight-year war. Related article: Afghan assault on Taliban to test US strategy

Hundreds of Afghan, US and British troops had been dropped into Marjah town for Operation Mushtarak ("together" in Dari), ahead of ground forces, a US Marines officer told AFP.

"At 0230 this morning (2200 GMT), helicopters inserted combined forces into Marjah town," said Lieutenant Josh Diddams, spokesman for the US Marines at Taskforce Leatherneck in Helmand.

"We are now moving forward on the ground and meeting minimal resistance," he said.

He confirmed troops had come under fire from Taliban fighters, believed to number 400-1,000, who have hunkered down ready for a fight.

NATO\'s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the assault is being led by three Marines battalions, with about five brigades of Afghan forces, aiming to clear Marjah of Taliban and re-establish government control.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned the troops to do everything possible to avoid harming civilians during the offensive.

"The president urges Afghan and foreign military authorities to continue to consult the local people, fully coordinate their actions and to avoid using air power in areas where civilians can be at risk," a statement from his office said.

Civilian casualties, though mostly caused by Taliban attacks, are a sensitive issue among war-weary Afghans, who often blame them on the foreign military presence.

General Muhaiuddin Ghori, Afghan army commander in Helmand, told AFP his troops had come under fire from militants both inside and outside Marjah township, home to 80,000 people in the central Helmand River valley.

Helmand\'s Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal, speaking on a video link from Lashkar Gah, told reporters: "Where there was resistance it has been eliminated."

The troops, dropped into Marjah from 60 helicopters, had taken 11 strategic areas, he said, adding: "There are a lot of mines in the area, and they are being defused as troops detect them."

Mushtarak is the first phase of a major operation to re-establish Afghan government control over the region.

The Taliban claimed early casualties among the attacking forces, with spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi saying insurgents had engaged US forces in Marjah\'s main square.

"Last night American and foreign forces entered Marjah Loy Charae (Big Square) in the centre of Marjah and we are busy fighting them," he said.

"In the first clash we killed six foreign soldiers," he said.

The claim could not be immediately verified. The Taliban habitually exaggerate death tolls.

The operation, described as the biggest military assault in Afghanistan in the eight-year war, comes after Obama\'s December announcement of a surge of 30,000 US troops and his intention to drawdown from July 2011.