The last commando group of Royal Marines to serve in Afghanistan is heading back to the UK, the Ministry of Defence said today.
After more than a decade of operational deployments in the war-torn country, troops from 40 Commando Royal Marines (40 Cdo) lowered the Royal Navy's white ensign above their main operating base, MOB Price, before flying out.
Servicemen from from 40 Cdo were the first British troops to deploy to the country in 2001, securing Bagram airfield and going on to patrol the streets of Kabul.
Since then the Marines have served in successive deployments in Sangin, Nahr-e Saraj and Musa Qala in Helmand Province.
The symbolic lowering of the ensign at MOB Price on Saturday in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand was the last time the flag will fly in the region.
The MoD said the equivalent of more than 14,000 Marines have served in Afghanistan across 12 deployments from the 7,200-strong Royal Marine Corps, while many others have been attached to other units.
The Royal Marines have been awarded nearly 200 honours for acts of bravery and distinguished service in Afghanistan, including a George Cross, seven Distinguished Service Orders and ten awards of the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, including one posthumously.
The commando group - who nicknamed MOB Price "HMS Price" - have now handed over to 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
During their deployments they helped develop the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan police units in the area to take on responsibility for security.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said: "The courage of the Royal Marines, and indeed all of our Armed Forces who have served in Afghanistan over the past decade, has been truly outstanding.
"Their commitment has made sure that transition of security to Afghan control is deliverable by the time we end our combat operations in December 2014.
"The hard work of 40 Commando Royal Marines in Afghanistan over the winter has led to impressive progress in the capabilities of Afghan forces as they take on security responsibility, with decreasing levels of assistance from UK and ISAF forces.
"It is these Afghan forces, developed and trained by UK personnel, who will ensure that Afghanistan never again provides a safe haven for terrorists."
In the past year, the number of UK bases across Helmand has reduced from 80 to 12 as they are handed over to Afghan forces or dismantled.
First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, said: "Royal Marines have been a key part of the Afghanistan effort since the UK committed to the region in 2001 and I would like to thank them for serving their country so valiantly, showing determination, commitment and courage.
"It has not been easy - with the many successes there have also been a number of sacrifices. Our thoughts and continued support are with those who were injured and their families and we will never forget those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
"The seminal contribution made by the Royal Marines has undeniably helped the Afghan Army strengthen its capability and with that brought greater stability to the region."
Lieutenant Colonel Matt Jackson, Commanding Officer of 40 Cdo, added: "The Commando group has been able to transfer lead security responsibility from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces in a very difficult area of Central Helmand.
"Working together over the winter, we have given the Afghan Army and the Afghan police the confidence in their own abilities to operate together.
"More importantly, we have given them the belief that they can operate independently from us; they now know that they are good enough to face down any future challenges that lie ahead.
"This is in no small measure due to the sacrifice made not just by the 61 Royal Marines who have lost their lives in this campaign, but by all Service personnel."
40 Cdo served with Task Force Helmand, led by the British Army's 4th Mechanised Brigade, who will shortly transfer authority to 1st Mechanised Brigade.
The Marines will now return to their base in Taunton, Somerset to start training for contingency operations, providing part of the UK's amphibious warfare capability.
The MoD said some Royal Marines will remain serving in Afghanistan on an individual basis, working alongside their colleagues from other services, as the UK continues to support the development of the Afghan National Security Forces.