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26 Afghan Militants Killed

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.

The offensive began May 15 with attacks on Taliban command and control and support networks. According to U.S. military and Afghan figures, about 550 people, mostly militants, have been killed since mid-May in the fiercest fighting since the Taliban's ouster. At least nine coalition troops have been killed in combat during the same time.

That fighting included up to 200 Taliban rebels attacking Musa Qala before fleeing from hundreds of coalition and Afghan forces.

Conditions permitting, Thursday will mark what the military calls the start of major and decisive anti-Taliban operations lasting through the summer. Reconstruction projects also play a major role.

The operation will involve about 2,300 U.S. conventional and special forces, 3,300 British troops, 2,200 Canadians, about 3,500 Afghan soldiers and coalition air support, Freakley said.

Some American forces will rotate out once the operation finishes at the end of the summer, while the British and Canadians will remain.

The offensive, which the military has been planning for 18 months, coincides with a surge in militant attacks in the southern and eastern provinces near the Pakistani border, where Afghan authorities have little or no presence.

Another major offensive, involving 2,500 U.S. and Afghan troops, was launched in April in eastern Kunar province and its reconstruction phase is continuing, Freakley said. But the Taliban is the strongest in the south.

Since the Taliban regime's defeat in late 2001, the militants have gained strength, said another military spokesman, Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick. "I think this summer the Taliban is stronger than they've been in years."

Militants have launched more suicide bombings against coalition troops in recent months, and staged nighttime attacks on government headquarters in small villages. The Taliban campaign, officials said, aims at convincing villagers the government cannot provide security, as well as to test NATO forces moving into the area.

Some of the increased fighting can be attributed to many more troops now being in the south.

"A year ago there was one infantry company in Helmand. Now there (are) 3,300 British," Freakley said. "The enemy was doing whatever they wanted. Now we're going into areas we haven't been in before, and now there's a backlash."

Maj. Geoff Catlett, an operational planner for the offensive, said coalition and Afghan forces would pressure Taliban militants in western Uruzgan and northeast Helmand.

Just north, the Hazara people — a rival tribe to the ethnic Pashtuns, from which the Taliban draws its fighters — will provide a "tribal backstop" for the coalition, he said.

Mountain Thrust aims at establishing a permanent Afghan army presence in the south, providing security for aid groups and boosting Afghan troop development, said Col. Michael Coss, chief of military operations at Bagram.

Another goal is to set the conditions for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, which takes command in Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition in late July or early August. The NATO force will have 6,000 troops stationed permanently in the south, double what the coalition has had in recent years.

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