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US reminder to Afghan rebels

Bagram, March 20 (Reuters): Hundreds of US troops backed by helicopters launched a major operation in southern Afghanistan today in an apparent signal to Afghan rebels the US army would not be distracted by war in Iraq.

“The White Devils of Coalition Task Force 82 began Operation Valiant Strike with an air assault at 0130 GMT,” the US military said in a statement issued at Bagram Air Base, its headquarters in Afghanistan.

The White Devils are a section of combat troops in the 82 Airborne Division.

“Operation Valiant Strike will consist of offensive operations southeast of Kandahar.”

At Bagram, spokesman Col Roger King said the timing of the attack, which began less than an hour before the first air strikes on the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, was “a coincidence”.

There are thousands of US troops in Afghanistan searching for Osama bin Laden and members of his al Qaida network, prime suspects in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, as well as leaders of the former Taliban government that sheltered them. King said the air attack was carried out by Chinook, Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, and said a ground convoy was also taking part.

King described it as a major operation with about 1,000 troops involved, including support troops, but with “considerably less than that on the ground”. “Planning for this operation has been going on for two months that I know of,” he said.

“The operations in Afghanistan are completely independent of any operations in any other sectors because they have a completely independent mission, completely independent objectives, completely independent force structure.”

Fighting in Afghanistan traditionally intensifies with the melting of the snows in spring, and there have been reports that Taliban and al Qaida militants were attempting to regroup and launch attacks, possibly to coincide with war on Iraq. Analysts said the timing of the US attack on rebel positions seemed designed to send a strong signal to anti-American forces in the country.

“The Americans have made several statements that war in Iraq will not in any way distract them from military operations in Afghanistan,” said political consultant Aqil Shah in Pakistan. “This attack is meant to underline that that there will no let up.”

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