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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Large-Scale Operation Targets Taliban Fugitives

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- U.S.-led forces have launched their first major combat operation in a month against Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives in eastern Afghanistan, officials announced Tuesday. U.S. authorities said all personnel were accounted for after a munitions explosion killed four American soldiers and wounded a fifth.

In Kabul, meanwhile, interim leader Hamid Karzai flew to Rome on Tuesday to accompany former king Mohammad Zaher Shah -- widely seen as a unifying figure -- back to Afghanistan after 29 years in exile.

The latest operation involves British, American and Afghan troops and marks the combat debut for Britain's elite force of Royal Marines, trained to operate in small units in mountains that rise more than 3,000 meters.

Marine spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paul Harradine gave few details, saying only that the operation began several days ago in an area "that was formerly known as an al-Qaida and Taliban base."

"They're going to sweep through, destroy any al-Qaida and Taliban that are there and then deny the group control of that area," he said at the allied base here.

U.S. military officials would not say how many American soldiers were taking part, but spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty said it was the first large-scale combat operation for the allies since last month's Operation Anaconda -- a 12-day assault on Taliban and al-Qaida forces in the eastern Shah-e-Kot mountains.

Harradine refused to say whether there had been any clashes so far but said the coalition had suffered no casualties.

In Kandahar, a U.S. Army spokesman, Major Ignacio Perez, said all U.S. troops had been accounted for following Monday's accidental explosion at a demolition range next to the former residence of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Earlier, Pentagon officials said the casualty toll could rise because a number of personnel were missing.

Troops were handling large caliber rockets that had been confiscated from former Taliban ammunition dumps when the accident occurred at midday Monday. The injured soldier was flown to the U.S. military base at Kandahar airport, where officials said his injuries were not life-threatening.

The U.S. military has not released the names of the victims but one was identified by his family as 27-year-old Jamie Maugans of Derby, Kansas, an ordnance disposal specialist based in San Diego. His grandmother, Shirley Maugans, of Wichita, said the family learned of his death Monday afternoon.

General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the accident shows "our servicemen and women remain at risk" in Afghanistan.

Karzai's mission to fetch the 87-year-old former king -- a distant relative -- began despite concerns over security in the country four months after the collapse of Taliban rule here. Zaher Shah's trip was delayed last month because of a rumored assassination plot.

Karzai's spokesman, Yusuf Nuristani, said the king was expected in Kabul on Thursday. He is expected to convene a grand council in June to choose a new government.