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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) – Afghanistan's insurgent Taliban movement said Monday they had launched a guerrilla operation to thwart a major assault by newly deployed US Marines on their Helmand strongholds.
Operation Foladi Jal, Pashtu for "iron net", would teach the Marines "a lesson". Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP by telephone from an unknown location.
About 4,000 Marines poured into the southern province on the border with Pakistan on Thursday in an operation called Khanjar (dagger) that is the first test of a beefed-up US strategy to tackle extremist militants in the region.
"In response to Operation Khanjar by the invading forces, we have launched Operation Foladi Jal," Ahmadi said.
"Their Khanjar will get stuck in our Foladi Jal," the rebel spokesman said.
"In this operation we'll teach them a lesson so they will never again dare to come into our areas," he said.
Helmand is one of the most intense battlefields in Afghanistan, with the Taliban controlling several areas and using funds from a lucrative trade in opium and heroin to rearm for their fight against the fragile government.
The operation would include improvised bomb explosions and "hit-and-run guerrilla attacks", Ahmadi said.
"We will not engage them in front battles. We would rather hit them by mines and guerrilla attacks," he said.
The assault by Marines, along with about 600 Afghan forces, has pushed into several key towns in southern Helmand and aims to hold the areas to allow Afghans to vote in August 20 presidential elections.
One Marine has been killed but officials have not released casualty figures for the insurgents, adding that many seem to have gone to ground.
Five British soldiers have been killed in less than a week in a similar operation underway north of the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah. Four were killed in explosions and the other by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The Marines and Afghan forces working alongside them have reported few obstacles, except in one area south of the town of Garmsir where officers have said there had been days of heavy fighting.
The commander of the army's southern corps, General Shair Mohammad Zazai, told AFP Monday that troops were advancing with no major resistance.
"The operations by the combined forces continue in Helmand. They have not faced any major resistance from the enemy, they have perhaps chosen to not resist us," the general said.
"In most areas we go into, there's no enemy. The only threat that exists is the roadside bombs that we try to remove from the roads," he said.
Ahmadi, the rebel spokesman, admitted that Taliban fighters had left some areas.
"But we're always there, our fighters are from the people and are among the people. We look for our chances. Each time there's a chance to hit the enemy, we'll hit them and go back among the people," he said.
The general said the troops were meanwhile holding shuras (councils) with the local people to encourage them to work with them and deny the insurgents refuge.
"We listen to their concerns and problems, then we try to address their problems. This is important to have the people with us," he said.
The Taliban were in government between 1996 and 2001, until they were ousted by a US-led invasion for sheltering Al-Qaeda.
They were able to group to launch an insurgency that eight years later has seen a record number of attacks, prompting the United States to this year review its strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, boosting troops numbers and aid.