NATO offensive against Taliban begins west of Kandahar

Canadian troops have launched a major operation designed to take back Taliban strongholds west of Kandahar.

Canadiantroops have launched a major offensive against the Taliban in an effort to take control of two dangerous districts in southern Afghanistan.

The campaign, dubbed Operation Medusa, began at 5 a.m. local time on Saturday, about 30 kilometres west of the city of Kandahar, military officials told CBC News.

Afghan and NATO troops, including most of the combat units from Canada's 2,200-strong contingent in Afghanistan, plan to secure the districts of Zhari and Panjwaii and offer humanitarian assistance for anyone displaced by the offensive.

Over the past several weeks, NATO and Afghan forces have battledmilitants from the region but then pulled back, allowing the Taliban to return.

Coalition forces plan to secure area

But in this operation, members of the NATO coalition, including the Afghan National Army, plan to remain in the area, according to U.S. Col. Steve Williams, deputy commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in southern Afghanistan.

Officials reported no casualties early Saturday in the mission, but Canadian commanders said they expected fierce fighting with several hundred Taliban guerrillas. A British aircraft supporting NATO in the area crashed on Saturday, killing all 14 on board.

The vast majority of the civilians in the area have already fled, mostly to Kandahar, because of the hostilities. It's not clear how many people remain. Those staying behind are said to be reluctant to abandon their vineyards.

The area has been a constant thorn in the side of Canadian troops. At least six have been killed and 32 wounded in dozens of bomb attacks, ambushes and pitched battles there, according to reports compiled by the Canadian Press.

The area was the scene of another major operation known as the "Battle of Panjwaii" at the beginning of summer.

At the time, commanders bragged they had broken the back of the insurgency there. Instead, coalition troops withdrew and the Taliban took over again. Officials have promised they will hold the area this time.

With files from the Canadian Press