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Jul 02, 2009 at 05:01pm IST

Major military operation in Afganistan: US

Nawa:Thousands of US Marines poured from helicopters and armored vehicles into Taliban-controlled villages of southern Afghanistan on Thursday in the first major operation under President Barack Obama's strategy to stabilise the country.

The offensive was launched shortly after 1am on Thursday local time in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the world's largest opium poppy producing area. The goal is to clear insurgents from the hotly contested region before the nation's presidential election on August 20.

Officials described the operation, dubbed Khanjar, or "Strike of the Sword," as the largest and fastest-moving of the war's new phase and the biggest Marine offensive since the one in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.

MILITARY OPERATION: It is claimed that the operation may be the biggest Marine offensive.

It involves nearly 4,000 newly arrived Marines plus 650 Afghan forces. British forces last week led similar, but smaller, missions to clear out insurgents in Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar province.

"Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," said Marine Corps Brig Gen Larry Nicholson in a statement.

Transport helicopters carried hundreds of Marines into the village of Nawa, some 30 kilometers south of the provincial Capital of Lashkar Gah, in a region where no US or other NATO troops have operated in large numbers.

The troops took many insurgents by surprise, dropping behind Taliban lines, said Capt Drew Schoenmaker, from Greene, New York.