Afghans lead biggest drive in years (Afghanistan)

10,000 sent to attack Taliban, other rebels in southern provinces


KABUL, Afghanistan -- Foreign and Afghan troops have launched their biggest offensive against insurgents in southern Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban almost five years ago, the U.S. military said Thursday.

More than 10,000 troops, led by Afghan security forces, have been working in Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, the stronghold for the Taliban and other insurgents, as part of Operation Mountain Thrust. Although the offensive started in mid-May, it has gained strength this week, officials said.

Also Thursday, Taliban attacks continued. A man shot three Nepalis working for a U.S. security firm in Kabul, killing one. And a bomb exploded on a mini-bus carrying people to work at the coalition base at Kandahar airfield, the main U.S. base in southern Afghanistan.

In the bomb attack, eight people were killed and 14 injured, said Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the Kandahar governor. He said the victims were laborers who worked at the airport.

"It's not a reaction to Mountain Thrust," Ahmadi said. "The enemies will do a terrorist attack whenever they get the opportunity. They will do their best to terrorize people and bring instability. That's their profession."

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bomb, saying the bus was targeted because it carried people who worked for Americans.

"These were not laborers," said purported Taliban spokesman Mohammed Hanif, in a telephone interview. "They would never give a nice bus to laborers. It was clear for our fighters that they were servants of Americans. We would never kill laborers."

The Kandahar base was recently handed over by U.S. forces to Canadians in the transition giving NATO responsibility for the south. Operation Mountain Thrust is timed to coincide with this hand-over.

In a statement, the U.S. military said there was no scheduled date for ending the operation.

"The coalition will continue operations well into the summer and until objectives are met," the statement said, adding that the operation is intended to set up conditions for the transfer of responsibility to NATO, most likely in late July.

Hanif said the bus bomb was also in response to Operation Mountain Thrust, which he said would not succeed. He said that the Taliban was gaining strength throughout southern Afghanistan and that he had no fear appearing in public although he did not disclose his location.

"I'm in a market," said Hanif, amid voices talking in the background. "I'm walking and talking to you. I don't have any bodyguards with me. I'm buying tea and Iranian cherry juice for my friends."

In recent months, the Taliban and other insurgents have launched their biggest challenge to the fledgling Afghan government. Fighting has intensified throughout the south, and some districts have been taken over by insurgents. About 550 people, mostly militants, have been killed since Operation Mountain Thrust started, according to U.S. military and Afghan figures, along with at least nine coalition troops.

In the other attack Thursday, a man with a pistol shot three Nepalis working for the U.S. security firm DynCorp International LLC, who were wearing their work uniforms and flak vests.

The Nepalis had just purchased three goats at Kabul's animal market when the man started firing, police said. One Nepali was killed. The two others were wounded. One of the injured men then shot and killed the attacker, said Gen. Nazar Mohammad Nekzad, head of the scene investigation for Kabul police.

In other violence Thursday, attackers on a motorcycle gunned down an Afghan intelligence officer in Helmand province, the provincial police chief told The Associated Press. And in southwestern Nimroz province, a mine exploded along the main highway from Kandahar to Iran, killing two Turkish construction workers, provincial spokesman Wahid Kharzad said.

Von: 16.06.06 By Kim Barker Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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