British bomb-disposal soldier killed in Helmand

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An Army bomb-disposal engineer has become the latest British soldier to die in Afghanistan, taking the death toll for 2009 to 108 – the highest number to die in action in a single year since the Falklands conflict in 1982.

The soldier, from 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), Royal Engineers, died from his injuries after a blast at a base in Sangin in Helmand. The area has seen a steady toll of deaths from roadside bombs which now account for 85 per cent of UK and allied deaths in the conflict.

The fatal explosion came on New Year's Eve as the soldier worked in a team carrying out controlled explosions outside the Blenheim patrol base. The engineer was from the same regiment as Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas, 28, who died while trying to disable a bomb on 15 November.

Lieutenant-Colonel David Wakefield, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: "His sacrifice and his courage will not be forgotten."

The death toll among British service personnel in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 now stands at 245. Last month, during a visit to Afghanistan, Gordon Brown pledged £160m to counter IEDs (improvised explosive devices) which will include more bomb-disposal training, "Dragon Runner" portable robots which can be used to disable IEDs, and a specialist centre to analyse intelligence on explosive devices.

The Government has also ordered 22 more Chinook helicopters to reduce the need for road convoys that are vulnerable to bombs and mines. They will not, however, arrive in Afghanistan until 2012-13, at a time when, according to ministers, British troops should be in a position to start withdrawing from the conflict.

The use of IEDs has increased in the past 18 months, with insurgents tending to avoid direct combat against Nato's superior firepower. There is also some evidence of new bomb-making technology of the type used in Iraq coming into Afghanistan.

British commanders have also stressed they favour troops' interaction with people with whom they are working. Foot patrols have, therefore, become necessary to carry out these plans. This policy fits in with the blueprint of General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in the country, calling for soldiers to mix with the population.