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NATO launches new Afghan offensive

Story Highlights

• NATO-led security forces launch major offensive against Taliban in Afghanistan
• "Operation Achilles", in volatile Helmand province, involves 5,500 coalition troops
• Offensive comes as resurgent Taliban prepares to launch major spring offensive
• U.S. military investigating two incidents involving reported Afghan civilian deaths
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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- NATO-led security forces have launched a major offensive against the Taliban and drug traffickers in southern Afghanistan, the military alliance's regional commander said in a statement on Tuesday.

The multi-national effort in the volatile northern region of Helmand province, codenamed "Operation Achilles," involves a 4,500-strong NATO contingent and nearly 1,000 Afghan troops.

NATO said one soldier had been killed in combat on Tuesday but gave no further details.

"This operation is targeting Taliban extremists, narco-traffickers and foreigner terrorists who have abused you, the Afghan people," Maj. Gen. Toon Van Loon, NATO's southern regional commander, said in a statement.

"Though Operation Achilles will initially focus on improving security conditions, its overarching purpose is to assist the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan improve its ability to begin reconstruction and economic development in the area."

More than 45,000 U.S. and NATO troops are battling a resurgent Taliban, Afghanistan's former rulers, and its allies in the al Qaeda terrorist network across a broad area of the south of the country, more than five years after al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The early spring offensive is the largest since NATO took control of operations in Afghanistan and aims to secure control of about 8,650 square miles, an area that includes the strategic Kajaki dam, CNN's Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson reported.

"There (are) known Taliban strongholds in this area and that's why NATO has gone into this area to stabilize it," Robertson said.

The Taliban overran the town of Musa Qala, near the dam, on February 1. The strong Taliban presense has slowed progress on the dam that already delivers power to about 300,000 Afghans, but will ultimately provide electricity to around 1.7 million.

In a recent interview, Mullah Dadullah, the man in charge of day-to-day military operations for the Taliban, said his forces were poised for a new offensive against NATO-led coalition troops.

Helmand is also the center of Afghan opium production. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported a record poppy harvest in Afghanistan in 2006 and has said this year's crop may be even larger. (Full story)

U.S. military investigation

Tuesday's offensive was launched as the U.S. military confirmed it was investigating two incidents involving its forces in Afghanistan on Sunday that may have unintentionally led to the deaths of several civilians. (Full story)

Afghan officials, quoted by wires services, said an airstrike on Sunday night in the town of Nijrab, north of Kabul, killed a family of nine, including several young children.

A coalition spokesman told CNN the airstrike targeted insurgents who fired rockets on a U.S. military base in Nijrab, located in Kapisa province.

According to the spokesman, U.S. soldiers observed armed combatants -- believed to have fired on the military base -- take cover in a compound and called in an airstrike on the building, the spokesman said.

U.S. forces dropped two 1,000-pound bombs on the building, killing nine people, he said. An investigation into the incident is under way, the spokesman said. It was not immediately clear if the nine killed were insurgents or civilians, he said.

The U.S. military is also investigating another incident on Sunday in which its forces fired on people after a suicide car bombing attack on its forces near the southeastern city of Jalalabad.

Eight Afghan civilians were killed and 35 were wounded in the attack, but it was not clear if the casualties were caused by the initial explosion, by Taliban gunfire or return fire from troops in the convoy. No U.S. forces were seriously wounded in the incident.

Zmarai Bashiri, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, said, "The American forces became emotional (after the car bombing) and opened fire on Afghans in the area because they feared another bomb attack."

But U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. David Accetta told CNN said it was "premature" to blame American troops for the deaths.

Accetta said the convoy's attackers "must have a blatant disregard for human life to have attacked coalition forces in a populated area."

The incident sparked protests in the streets of Jalalabad. Many of the demonstrators called on American troops in Afghanistan to go home. Afghan President Hamid Karzai telephoned elders and family members of the victims, expressing his sympathies, according to a statement released Monday from his office.

On Sunday, Karzai ordered an investigation into the incident and sent investigators to Nangarhar Province, where Jalalabad is located, the statement said.

Italian reporter missing

Italy's Foreign Ministry has opened an investigation into why an Italian reporter in Afghanistan has not been heard from since Sunday, spokesman Nikola Jovanovic said.

La Repubblica Editor-in-Chief Ezio Mauro said the newspaper had not heard from Daniele Mastrogiacomo since Sunday.

Italy's foreign ministry said foreign minister Massimo D'Alema was personally following the case and working closely with the Italian embassy Kabul.

British marine killed

The UK Ministry of Defense said a British marine was killed in action in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday. The marine, who was not identified, died in the Kajaki area of Helman province when his unit came under fire. He was not involved in the major NATO offensive.

Helmand province, where Britain has more than 5,000 troops, has seen a number of clashes with resurgent Taliban forces in the last few weeks

-- CNN's Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson contributed to this report

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- part of the NATO-led coalition that has launched a major offensive.



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