British-led forces launch major Afghan operation

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LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, Sep 19 (Reuters) British-led forces launched a major operation in southern Afghanistan today, aiming to clear Taliban insurgents from a valley in Helmand -- the most violent province in the country.

Some 2,500 troops from the NATO-led force began the operation this morning with infantry backed by Warrior armoured vehicles, guided rocket systems, attack helicopters and fighter jets, a spokesman for the British forces in Helmand said.

''The purpose of the operation is to continue to remove the Taliban from the area north of Gereshk, to set the conditions whereby the people who live there can start to enjoy security and the government ... can begin to apply governance and development,'' Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Eaton said.

The operation is under British command and most of the troops are British, but the force also includes Afghan soldiers and contingents from the Czech Republic, Estonia and the United States.

It was the first time British forces had used the 30-tonne Warrior fighting vehicle in a large operation in Afghanistan.

''This is an operation that has been several weeks, several months in the planning,'' US Major Charles Anthony told a news conference in Kabul.

''GREEN ZONE'' Helmand is Afghanistan's most violent region with daily clashes between Taliban insurgents, who control large parts of the province, and Afghan, British and US forces.

British forces make up the majority of ISAF troops in Helmand, while US-led coalition forces have also conducted a number of operations in the region.

British troops are attempting to steadily extend Afghan government control of towns and villages along the Helmand River valley -- a lush fertile strip of land flanked by desert known as the ''Green Zone''.

Most of the world's heroin is grown in the valley.

A suicide bomber wounded eight Afghan policemen in the town of Garmser southwest along the Helmand River from Gereshk. Three of the officers were in a serious condition, Helmand police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal told reporters.

Near the capital Kabul, a suicide car bomb exploded before reaching its target and no one was injured, the Interior Ministry said.

Elsewhere, one woman was killed and two other civilians wounded in a Taliban attack on a NATO outpost in Zabul province in the southeast of the country.

Two US-led coalition soldiers were wounded yesterday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in the eastern province of Paktia, the US military said today.

Afghan troops killed three militants and detained four more in Wardak province, immediately southwest of Kabul, a Defence Ministry statement said.

The troops also defused two roadside bombs.

Afghanistan has seen a steady escalation of violence over the last two years, the worst since Afghan and US-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

REUTERS SG BD1831

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