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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Canadian troops launch offensive into Taliban hotbed

Canadian troops suffered no casualties as they swept into a Taliban hotbed west of Kandahar on Saturday, but a nearby plane crash killed 14 British soldiers. Canadian combat units, along with other NATO and Afghan forces, have launched a major offensive against insurgents in the violent Panjwai district. The mission is dubbed Operation Medusa.

"It's in an area where Canadian troops have taken casualties," said CTV's Matt McClure on Saturday from Kandahar, ". . . and where they've also been involved in heavy battles trying to take this territory early this year."

Canadian battle group commander, Col. Omer Lavoie, told CTV News that his soldiers have gained the upper hand against the militants despite meeting some resistance.

"We were ambushed en route about four o'clock in the morning. But my platoon . . . dealt with the ambush, engaged and destroyed the enemy, and for the rest of it we moved in here with no resistance," said Lavoie.

"We certainly own the dominating ground now in Panjwai district."

Pro-government forces then proceeded to move into the district, backed by artillery and air support as they prepared to move across the Arghandab River into Pashmul area -- known as the heart of the Taliban stronghold.

The commander of the Canadian contingent said fierce fighting is expected with Taliban guerrillas in this latest mission.

"I think we're talking in the neighbourhood of hundreds" of fighters, said Col. Fred Lewis. "Certainly not thousands, not tens. Might they just fade away? If they're smart, they will."

At least six Canadians have died and 32 were wounded in dozens of bomb attacks, ambushes and pitched battles in the area, according to reports compiled by The Canadian Press.

The area was the scene of a major operation at the start of the summer, known as the Battle of Panjwai. Commanders then claimed to have broken the back of the insurgency there, but coalition troops withdrew and the Taliban took over again.

"This time, the Brigadier General David Fraser said it's going to be different, and that they're going to hold this area," said McClure.

"Either Canadian forces and/or Afghan forces are going to be there, they say, in numbers so that the Taliban can't move in."

Lewis said, however, that the bulk of Canadian troops will eventually again withdraw.

"I don't think it will be Canadians" securing the area after Operation Medusa," Lewis said. "I think it will be Afghan led."

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