U.S. launches new offensive in Afghanistan

KABUL, DEC. 11. U.S. troops have begun a new offensive to hunt Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants through the harsh Afghan winter, aiming to sap their strength ahead of planned spring elections, the American military said on Saturday.

"Operation Lightning Freedom" was initiated after Tuesday's inauguration of Hamid Karzai as the country's first democratically elected President, the U.S. Army spokesman, Maj. Mark McCann, said. He said he didn't know exactly when the operation began and gave no details of any specific moves against militant targets.

``It's going on throughout the country of Afghanistan,'' Maj. McCann said. ``It's designed basically to search out and destroy the remaining remnants of Taliban forces who traditionally we believe go to ground during the winter months.''

Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the No. 2 American commander here, said last month that the operation would include a redeployment to tighten security on the border with Pakistan and raids by special forces to snatch rebel leaders.

Protecting Afghanistan's young democracy has become the most urgent priority for American commanders frustrated by their failure to capture the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "Lightning Freedom represents a new phase, rather than any shift in strategy, and commanders will continue with a mixing of combat operations with humanitarian-type operations,'' the spokesman said.