Soldier killed in Afghanistan blast

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The Independent Online

A soldier from the counter-IED task force died following an explosion in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence said today.

The soldier, from 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), Royal Engineers, died from wounds suffered in the blast near Patrol Base Blenheim, near Sangin, in Helmand Province, yesterday afternoon. His family has been told.

His death takes the number of British service personnel who have died since the start of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 to 245.

Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: "He was part of the counter-IED task force, leading the fight against the improvised explosive device (IED) in Helmand. His sacrifice and his courage will not be forgotten."

His death took last year's grim tally to 108 - the bloodiest 12 months for British forces since the 1982 Falklands War.

About three-quarters of the British deaths in Afghanistan in 2009 were thought to have been caused by insurgent-IEDs.

IEDs strike suddenly and without warning, and British troops have been hit particularly hard because nearly all of them are based in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and major centre of opium production which is the most dangerous province in the country.

Speaking last month, one expert said the growing complexity of the IEDs used in Afghanistan suggested that the Taliban were getting help from either state sponsors or - more likely - experienced Islamist insurgents who have fought in places like Iraq or Chechnya.

Dr Tim Bird, a lecturer in the defence studies department of King's College London, said: "Initially, when we moved into Helmand in 2006, the Taliban were keen and eager to have pitched battles.

"They learned quickly that's not the best way to tackle a modern military and switched to IEDs, which hugely raised the death toll."

There was intense debate last year about whether the equipment and vehicles provided to British troops in Afghanistan were adequate to protect them from insurgent bombs.

But Dr Bird said it was vital for troops to move among the local population in a counter-insurgency operation, adding that no vehicle was invulnerable to IEDs.

It is understood that the latest British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan was on patrol conducting controlled explosions to help reduce the threat from IEDs when the incident happened.

He was from the same regiment as Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas, 28, who died after a roadside bomb exploded while he was clearing a route in the Helmand Province on 15 November.

His widow, Nicola Marlton-Thomas, 30, who lived with her husband at the regiment's base in Braintree, Essex, told mourners he was "my world, my life, my lover and my best friend".

Last month, the Prime Minister confirmed a £150 million package to tackle roadside bombs in Aghanistan as he warned of more "hard fighting" ahead.

In a statement to MPs, Gordon Brown announced an extra £10 million in urgent funding was being allocated for handheld mine detectors which will operate alongside explosive disposal robots.

There will also be "new and enhanced facilities" for training and improving intelligence to locate the deadly devices.

Altogether the package is worth £50 million a year over the next three years, according to Mr Brown.