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02-13-2010, 12:01 PM
Afghanistan: NATO launches major offensive in Afghanistan to push back Taliban


US-led NATO forces and Afghan troops have entered the Taliban's main stronghold in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province after launching a major military strike against the insurgency in the country.

The Pentagon confirmed in the early hours of Saturday morning that US and Afghan troops participating in Operation Mushtarak - a Dari word for "together" - stormed the city of Marjah and the surrounding farmland after midnight.

Roughly 5,000 US Marines and 2,000 Afghan forces are involved in this first part of the assault.

"This operation is designed to reconnect the people of Marjah with the legitimate government of Afghanistan," Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said in a statement.

"We are fully partnered with the Afghan government for this operation, and we have the resources we need to be successful."

Up to 1,000 insurgents were thought to be sheltering in and around Marjah, and it was initially believed that the fighting could last for several weeks. However, the combined forces say they have encountered "minimal resistance" so far.

The assault is part of the NATO troop surge in Afghanistan - spearheaded by the US - which aims to improve the security situation and push back against a resurgent Taliban insurgency.

Leaflets to warn civilians

On Friday, helicopters dropped leaflets on the town and surrounding area, which has an estimated overall population of 125,000, warning people to stay indoors and not to let Taliban fighters into their homes.

NATO has openly discussed Operation Mushtarak in the days leading up to the offensive, with officials inviting more moderate members of the Taliban to flee or switch sides.

"The aim of the operation is also to make a point that the Afghan government can establish its authority whenever and wherever it wants," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai in Brussels on Wednesday.

French, British, Estonian, Canadian and Danish troops have also been mobilized to take part in the operation, claimed to be the biggest since the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001.

On Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told parliament that Germany's military deployment in Afghanistan had been redefined legally as an "armed conflict." Previously, it had been termed a "robust stabilization mission."