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U.S.-led coalition plans offensive in south Afghanistan


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- At least one American soldier was killed in fighting with Taliban guerrillas as the U.S.-led coalition prepared to launch an offensive today against insurgents in southern Afghanistan, the military said yesterday.

The soldier died Tuesday during a Taliban attack on a patrol in Helmand province, where guerrillas and coalition forces have fought several fierce battles in recent weeks.

The U.S. military said more than 11,000 Afghan, American, British and Canadian troops will begin Operation Mountain Thrust against Taliban fighters today in the four southern provinces where the insurgents are strongest: Zabol, Kandahar, Helmand and Oruzgan.

Afghan soldiers will form the largest contingent. About 2,300 U.S. Special Forces and regular troops will take part in the operation, which will include an effort to win the hearts and minds of southern Afghans with reconstruction and humanitarian aid projects.

In Helmand province, the country's largest source of opium, Taliban fighters control some districts, Gov. Mohammed Daoud said by phone from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

"They threaten people. They kill people. And sometimes they cut their heads off," he said. "This operation is intended to clean them out."

He predicted that the offensive would be more effective than previous operations because it is better planned.

"But we should also say that the Taliban are getting ready for this offensive," he added. "It's not like they are all sleeping. But still I don't think they'll have the ability to fight against such an organized operation. And I don't think there will be heavy fighting."

The offensive also is intended to make remote areas more secure for aid workers and reconstruction projects, improving job opportunities for residents, the governor said.

The surge in fighting has killed several hundred people, most of them suspected insurgents. Taliban and allied fighters began their offensive this spring as mountain snows melted and the guerrillas were able to move more freely.

The insurgents in the south also appear to be taking advantage of the handover from U.S.-led forces to North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, mainly from Britain and Canada, which is due to be completed next month.

NATO announced this month that it would deploy 6,000 troops in the region, which the alliance said was roughly double the average number of U.S.-led forces in southern provinces over the past few years.

"They have been relatively short of troops, of boots on the ground," Lt. Gen. David Richards said during a Kabul news conference June 4.

The U.S. military said yesterday that combined operations over the past several months "have greatly disrupted the enemy's ability to organize and act."

But fighting continues to escalate in Afghanistan, which is suffering its worst violence since late 2001, when U.S. and allied Afghan forces toppled the Taliban regime.

Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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