(AFP) – Apr 29, 2008
KABUL (AFP) — US Marines pushed into a stronghold of extremist Taliban resistance in southernmost Afghanistan Tuesday in their first major operation since deploying to Afghanistan last month.
The Marines, supported by British soldiers based in the southern province of Helmand, launched the operation Monday to "enhance security" in the district of Garmser, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
Garmser in southern Helmand is an area of difficult desert terrain that extends down to the Pakistan border across which Taliban reinforcements and weapons are said to arrive to enter a growing insurgency.
Soldiers with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in the neighbouring province of Kandahar, were airlifted into forward bases in the area last week or moved in on convoys, ISAF said.
From there they launched the operation named Azada Wosa, which means Be Free in the Pashtu language of southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Military officials could not say how many soldiers were involved for security reasons.
"Our entire unit is involved in this operation although only a percentage of us are physically in the district," said Captain Kelly Frushour, spokeswoman for the 2,300-strong Marine Expeditionary Unit.
"Garmser district has seen little ISAF presence in the recent past. The Marines are there to secure the district centre in order to allow for the extension of governance," she told AFP.
The abandoned town of Garmser, once a thriving market town about 200 kilometres (120 miles) from the Pakistan border, is only partially in government control.
It has a small British base where Prince Harry was stationed for some of his 10-week tour that ended March when it was exposed in the media.
British troops stationed across Helmand helped the Marines move through the province and into place, a British military spokesman told AFP.
The area of the operation is a known to have strong Taliban influence, Lieutenant Colonel Robin Matthews added.
ISAF commanders were using the Marines as a "strategic tool," he said. "Clearly they want to have an effect on the area south of Garmser."
The Marines started deploying in March to help ISAF forces after a difficult year in 2007, the deadliest in an insurgency launched after the Taliban were able to regroup following their ouster from government in late 2001.
This year is expected to be just as tough and ISAF has been amassing extra troops and equipment for the battle.
The unrest routinely steps up over spring: the last week has seen several incidents across the country.
A Taliban suicide attack in a small town in eastern Afghanistan Tuesday killed 15 Afghans and wounded 25, ISAF said.
On Sunday the insurgents staged one of their most audacious attacks yet, opening fire on a stage where some of the country's most senior figures -- including President Hamid Karzai and several ambassadors -- gathered for a military parade.
Three Afghans, one of them a parliamentarian, were killed and three of the attackers were gunned down.
Most of the fighting in the insurgency is however in southern Afghanistan.
Military officials say Helmand is a nest of hardcore Taliban fighters supported by international Islamic "jihadists" and the centre of Afghanistan's booming opium and heroin trade.
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