KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Thousands of American and Afghan troops unleashed a new offensive against Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday in an effort to expand the government’s reach into the volatile Pakistani border region.

The operation comes as a NATO-led force, including 2,500 U.S. soldiers, is launching heavy attacks on militants in Afghanistan’s south, claiming to have killed hundreds of guerrillas over the past two weeks.

The new push is “just one part of a series of coordinated operations placing continuous pressure on Taliban extremists … in order to provide security to the population, extend the government to the people and to increase reconstruction,” the military said in a statement.

Dubbed Operation Mountain Fury, the offensive involves 7,000 U.S. and Afghan soldiers in the central and eastern provinces of Paktika, Khost, Ghazni, Paktya and Logar, the military said. Fighter planes and helicopters will back the forces.

Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups, including al-Qaida, are known to operate in the region, especially in the area bordering Pakistan where the reach of the government is weak and militants find sanctuaries.

Highlighting the dangers the troops face, two separate insurgent attacks on a military base in Khost province killed a U.S.-led coalition soldier and wounded another on Friday, the military said. A number of Afghan troops also were wounded, a statement said.

A suspected suicide bomber also blew himself up in the same province when explosives strapped to his body went off prematurely as he approached a police checkpoint on Saturday. Nobody else was injured in the blast, police said.

The U.S. military said troops have been preparing for weeks for Mountain Fury but launched its “maneuver phase” early Saturday. A separate U.S.-led operation called Big Northern Wind has been under way in neighboring Kunar province’s Korangal Valley since late August.

The offensives come as the country is going through its bloodiest phase since the U.S.-led invasion ousted the hard-line Taliban from power in 2001.

According to an Associated Press count based on reports from U.S., NATO and Afghan officials, 2,800 people have died so far this year in violence nationwide, including militants and civilians – about 1,300 more than the toll for all of 2005.

“Mountain Fury will continue until the conditions of bringing security, construction and growth are met,” Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, the top U.S. operational commander, said in a statement.

“The Afghan people are tired of war. They want what their government is capable of providing: security, employment, education and a better way of life,” Freakley said.

Elsewhere, NATO troops and aircraft in the country’s southern Uruzgan province killed 17 suspected insurgents placing roadside bombs near a military base Friday, the alliance said.

About 60 suspected Taliban militants also attacked a police checkpoint in southern Afghanistan Friday, sparking a battle in which four militants died, police said.

NATO and Afghan soldiers came to the aid of police after the insurgents attacked the checkpoint near the district police headquarters in the Khas Uruzgan district of southern Uruzgan province, said Mohammad Zahir, the district police chief.

Afghan security forces and NATO suffered no casualties. Police recovered the bodies of four suspected Taliban fighters along with their weapons, Zahir said.

Separately, a bomb blast south of the Afghan capital killed three security guards and wounded another on Saturday, police said.

The remote-controlled device went off as a car carrying four Afghans passed on the main road in the Musayi district of Kabul province, said Ali Shah Paktiawal, a police official.

The victims were all working for local private security firms which provides services to local and international non-governmental organizations, said Mohammad Daud Nadim, regional police chief. All four were armed at the time of the blast, he said.

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