MUSA QALA, Afghanistan – Coalition and national troops battled militants in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, the eve of a sweeping anti-Taliban offensive by U.S.-led forces — their biggest since the Islamic extremist government's 2001 ouster.
Some 26 militants were slain in an attack on mountain positions in Paktika province, said provincial Gov. Akram Khelwak. Helicopter gunships and artillery fire supported ground troops; one Afghan police officer was wounded. Also in Paktika, four civilians died when rebel rockets slammed into their house, the provincial government said.
Meanwhile, in volatile Helmand province, U.S. troops in sweltering heat built sand barriers and guard outposts around a small forward operating base in support of Operation Mountain Thrust. Soldiers around the base's perimeter fired rounds from 119-millimeter howitzers into the vast desert.
"We do it so they know it's here and they know it could be pretty bad for them," said Lt. Col. Chris Toner, commanding officer at the base in the Musa Qala district, 180 miles from the nearest permanent base, in Kandahar.
"This terrain up here favors the defender," he said. "I'm sure they know how many vehicles we have here, that we have artillery here, but that's OK — I know what they know."
Some 11,000 troops have deployed for the offensive in Helmand, one of four mountainous and desert-filled southern provinces being targeted. British, Canadian and Afghan troops are joining U.S. forces in the offensive, expected to start Thursday.
Even as they prepared for the operation, U.S.-led forces came under attack from the militants they aim to eliminate.
On Tuesday, suspected Taliban fighters ambushed a 10-vehicle combat logistics convoy in Helmand's Sangin district, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding two, and sparking a battle that left 12 militants dead or wounded, Toner said Wednesday.
About 100 British troops quickly air-dropped in to support the patrol, said coalition spokesman Maj. Quentin Innis. The fighters fired on the convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, disabling three vehicles and forcing U.S. troops to spend the night there, Toner said.
Another coalition soldier was killed in combat Tuesday in the eastern province of Kunar; the soldier's nationality was not released, but U.S. troops have been fighting alongside Afghan forces in the remote region, which borders Pakistan.
Afghanistan has been wracked by its bloodiest violence since the U.S.-led coalition invaded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and toppled the Taliban government for harboring Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda supporters.
Operation Mountain Thrust seeks to squeeze Taliban fighters responsible for a spate of ambushes and suicide attacks against coalition forces and Afghan authorities. It will focus on southern Uruzgan and northeastern Helmand, where the military says most of the militant forces have gathered. Operations will also be conducted in the former Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Zabul.
"This is not just about killing or capturing extremists," U.S. spokesman Col. Tom Collins said in Kabul, announcing the operation.
"We are going to go into these areas, take out the security threat and establish conditions where government forces, government institutions, humanitarian organizations can move into these areas and begin the real work that needs to be done," he said, referring to reconstruction efforts.
Limited operations began May 15 with attacks on Taliban command and control and support networks. According to U.S. military and Afghan figures, about 550 people, mostly militants, have been killed since mid-May, along with at least nine coalition troops.
The offensive is the start of what the military says will be major and decisive anti-Taliban moves lasting through the summer. Reconstruction projects will also be done in the region.
Taking part in the operation will be about 2,300 U.S. conventional and special forces, 3,300 British troops, 2,200 Canadians, about 3,500 Afghan soldiers and coalition air support, said Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, U.S. operational commander in Afghanistan.
The offensive is the largest launched since 2001. But U.S.-led troops have conducted large-scale operations elsewhere in Afghanistan involving several thousand soldiers, particularly in the east near the Pakistani border where Taliban forces routinely attack U.S.-led troops from towering mountain ranges.
Taliban militants have launched more suicide bombings against coalition troops in recent months, and staged nighttime attacks on government headquarters in small villages. The Taliban campaign, officials say, aims at convincing villagers the government cannot provide security, as well as to test NATO forces moving into the area.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force takes command in Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition in late July or early August. It will have 6,000 troops stationed permanently in the south, double what the coalition has had in recent years.