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1000 US troops begin Afghan surge

US Marines have swooped down behind Taliban lines in helicopters and Osprey aircraft in the first offensive since President Barack Obama announced an American troop surge.

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About 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan troops were taking part in ‘Operation Cobra’s Anger’ in a bid to disrupt Taliban supply and communications lines in the Now Zad Valley of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, the scene of heavy fighting last summer, Marine spokesman Major William Pelletier said.

David Petraeus, the top general in charge of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, said the offensive was part of preparations for the arrival of 30,000 new US reinforcements.

Petraeus told The Associated Press on Friday that the military has been working for months to extend what he called “the envelope of security” around key towns in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

Helicopters drop hundreds of US troops

Hundreds of troops were dropped Friday by helicopters and MV-22 Osprey aircraft in the northern end of the Now Zad Valley while a second, larger Marine force pushed northward from the main Marine base in the town of Now Zad, Pelletier said.

A US military official in Washington said it was the first use of Ospreys, aircraft that combine features of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, in an offensive involving units larger than platoons.

Combat engineers used armoured steamrollers and explosives to force a corridor through Taliban minefields – known as IED Alley because of the huge number of roadside bombs and land mines, Pelletier said.

Roadside bombs and mines have become the biggest killer of American troops in Afghanistan.

There were no reports of US or Afghan government casualties. The spokesman for the governor of Helmand province, Daood Ahmadi, said at least four Taliban fighters had been killed and their bodies recovered.

He said more than 300 mines and roadside bombs had been located in the first day of the operation.

NATO reinforcements to arrive

The offensive began three days after Obama announced that he was sending 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan to help turn the tide against the Taliban and train Afghan security forces to take responsibility for defending against the militants.

The US’s European allies will send an estimated 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan next year “with more to come,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced Friday.

Most of the new troops are expected to be sent to southern Afghanistan, including Helmand, where Taliban influence is strongest.

Friday’s fighting was taking place in one of the most challenging areas of the country for the US-led NATO force, which has been trying for years to break the Taliban grip there.

Now Zad used to be one of the largest towns in Helmand, the centre of Afghanistan’s opium poppy growing industry.

However, three years of fighting have chased away its 30,000 inhabitants, leaving the once-thriving market and commercial area a ghost town. Instead the area has become a major supply and transportation hub for Taliban forces that use the valley to move drugs, weapons and fighters south toward major populations and to provinces in western Afghanistan.