26 Afghan Militants Killed

US soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment wait after being dropped off by a Chinook helicopter outside the village of Musa Qala, Helmand Province, south Afghanistan, Tuesday, June 13, 2006. More US soldiers are moving into the region in support of military operation Mountain Thrust, in southern Afghanistan. AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

Coalition and Afghan forces killed 26 suspected militants Wednesday in fighting in eastern mountains, while in southern Afghanistan, more than 11,000 troops prepared for their biggest offensive since the fall of the Taliban five years ago.

Suspected Taliban militants attacked a coalition logistics patrol in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, killing one American soldier and wounding two others, the U.S. military said.

About 100 British troops were quickly air-dropped in to support the patrol and coalition air fire killed or wounded 12 militants in the area, said coalition spokesman Maj. Quentin Innis. Another coalition soldier died in combat in the eastern Kunar region.

Coalition and Afghan forces killed 26 suspected Taliban militants in eastern mountains near the Pakistani border, said Paktika provincial Gov. Akram Khelwak. Helicopter gunships and artillery fire supported troops on the ground, Khelwak said. One Afghan police officer was wounded.

Four civilians were also killed when a rocket hit their home in a separate rebel attack in Paktika, Khelwak said.

The major offensive that starts Thursday will involve 11,000 U.S., British, Canadian and Afghan troops. The push, which aims to squeeze Taliban fighters in four volatile provinces, will focus on southern Uruzgan and northeastern Helmand, where the military says most of the forces are massed.

Dubbed Operation Mountain Thrust, the offensive comes amid Afghan and coalition efforts to curb the fiercest Taliban-led violence since the hard-line Islamic government was toppled for harboring Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"This is not just about killing or capturing extremists," U.S. spokesman Col. Tom Collins told reporters in Kabul as he announced the operation.

"We are going to go into these areas, take out the security threat and establish conditions where government forces, government institutions, humanitarian organizations can move into these areas and begin the real work that needs to be done."

The force of more than 11,000 troops is the largest deployed in Afghanistan for one operation since the 2001 invasion. Previous offensives have involved several thousand soldiers.

U.S. troops on Wednesday built walls of sand and guard outposts around the small forward operating base that will support the operation.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, U.S. operational commander in Afghanistan, had earlier told The Associated Press that coalition and Afghan troops would attack "Taliban enemy sanctuary or safe haven areas" in Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.

"Right now ... they'll be in one area, they'll move out of that area, they'll conduct an attack in another area, then move back to a safe haven," he said last week in an interview at Bagram, the U.S. military headquarters north of Kabul.

"This is our approach to put simultaneous pressure on the enemy's networks, to cause their leaders to make mistakes, and to attack those leaders," Freakley told the AP ahead of the operation.

  • Joel Roberts

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