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U.S. Marines Stage Afghan Helicopter Assault

KABUL (Reuters) -- Four hundred U.S. Marines have staged a helicopter assault in the mountains of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, part of efforts to secure Taliban-held areas, eight days before a presidential election.

The 10,000-strong U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) in Helmand is the biggest element of a wave of reinforcements sent this year by President Barack Obama in an effort to turn the tide in an 8-year-old war commanders have described as stalemated.

The 400 Marines, accompanied by 100 Afghan soldiers, staged Operation Eastern Resolve II in Nawzad, a district in the northeastern part of the province, the MEB said in a statement. Operations on that scale take place in Afghanistan regularly.

"Our mission is to support the Independent Election Commission and Afghan national security forces. They are the ones in charge of these elections. Our job is to make sure they have the security to do their job," MEB commander Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said. The statement gave no details about casualties.

Taliban militants have vowed to disrupt the August 20 election with attacks on polling stations and threats against voters.

The United Nations says intimidation and violence, especially in areas like Helmand, has already disrupted preparations for the vote and campaigning, and could prevent many Afghans from reaching the polls.

Helmand has been the focus of U.S. and NATO effort since U.S. and British forces launched the biggest operations of the war last month. By far Afghanistan's most violent province, it produces the bulk of the world's opium poppy crop.

U.S. commanders say about half of the province was in the grip of the Taliban until the Marines arrived, with 4,000 of them advancing into the southern part of the province in operation Strike of the Sword, last month.

Thousands of British troops, who occupy other parts of Helmand Province, launched their own operation Panther's Claw north of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, facing the heaviest British ground combat casualties in a generation.

The period since the beginning of July has been by far the deadliest of the war for U.S., British, and allied troops. More than 100 have now died since the beginning of July.

More Western troops have died since the start of March in Afghanistan than in the entire period from 2001-2004.