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NATO Launches Huge Afghan Offensive

NATO-led troops launched an offensive against Taliban militants Tuesday in a volatile southern Afghan province where hundreds of militant fighters have amassed.

The operation, which will eventually involve 4,500 NATO troops and 1,000 Afghan soldiers, was launched at the request of the Afghan government and will focus on the northern region of Helmand province, NATO's International Security Assistance Force said.

"Our first maneuver elements reached their positions at approximately 5:00 a.m. this morning," said Maj. Gen. Ton van Loon, ISAF's southern commander.

The alliance announced soon after the operation's start that one soldier had been killed.

A statement from NATO's International Security Assistance Force gave no further details about the soldier's death or where it happened.

Dubbed Operation Achilles, the offensive is NATO's largest-ever in the country. But it will involve only half the number of soldiers that fought in a U.S. offensive in the same region just nine months ago, when some 11,000 U.S.-led troops attacked fighters in northern Helmand province during Operation Mountain Thrust.

NATO said that Achilles would initially focus on improving security conditions, but that its "overarching purpose is to assist the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan improve its ability to begin reconstruction and economic development."

"We cannot allow extremists, criminals and Taliban to decide what happens in this country," van Loon told reporters in Kandahar. "We need to make sure the government of Afghanistan with our support ... secures the area."

The government has little control over many parts of northern Helmand, and the British troops stationed there fight almost-daily battles with militants. U.S. intelligence officials say Taliban fighters have flooded into Helmand the last several months, and that there are now more fighters there than any other part of the country.

The militants overran Musa Qala, in central Helmand province, on Feb. 1 after defying a peace deal between the government and elders reached last fall that capped weeks of fighting. The Taliban still control the town more than a month after the initial attack.

British troops have also been battling militants in the nearby district of Kajaki, in northern Helmand, to enable repair work on a hydroelectric damn there, which supplies close to 2 million Afghans with electricity.

"Strategically, our goal is to enable the Afghan government to begin the Kajaki project," van Loon, said. "This long-term initiative is a huge undertaking and the eventual rehabilitation of the Kajaki multipurpose dam and power house will improve the water supply for local communities, rehabilitate irrigation systems for farmlands and provide sufficient electrical power for residents, industries and commerce," he said.

Helmand is the world's biggest producer of opium, and a new U.N. drug assessment indicates this year's poppy harvest could be higher than last year's record output. The U.N. says Taliban fighters protect poppy farmers and tax the crop, deriving much-needed income for their insurgency.

Meanwhile, a remote-control bomb targeting a police vehicle on Tuesday killed one policeman and wounded another in Murja district, also in Helmand, said Ghulam Nabi Mulakhail, the province's police chief.

The blast also wounded six Afghan civilians nearby, said Abdul Basir, a police officer in the district.

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