Blair to announce deployment of UK ground troops

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Tony Blair is today expected to announce the deployment of British ground troops in Afghanistan before the onset of winter.

Downing Street said the Prime Minister would be "completely straight" with the British public on what casualties to expect when troops go into action on the ground.

As the US–led bombing campaign continued alongside more covert ground operations, the prospect of sending British troops into Afghanistan drew nearer.

Downing Street said it was likely that the British contribution would be more than the support and refuelling operations undertaken so far and that the Government was in continuing discussions with the US about the use of ground forces.

In the clearest signal yet of an imminent deployment, the Prime Minister's spokesman said the Government was engaged in "detailed discussions" with the US over the use of "overt" ground forces.

It is understood that Mr Blair spoke to President George W. Bush by phone last night and chaired a meeting of the War Cabinet at Downing Street this morning.

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Paul Keetch said: "There may certainly be a case for deployment of British special forces in the Middle East. But there must also be a continuing presence of special forces in the UK.

"We must remember that there is the possibility of a terrorist attack on the UK mainland. It was events on the US mainland which brought about the present engagement.

"If there is a deployment of the bulk of our special forces, we must nevertheless retain a special force capability in the UK."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday that the progress of military operations over the weekend demonstrated that the campaign is very clearly on track.

"The strategy is clear and it is working. In the first instance, air power has been used to damage Taliban defences, installations, and hitting the al Qaida network itself – making the ground more conducive to other operations."

Asked how Mr Blair would prepare Britons for the prospect of casualties, his spokesman added: "I think the Prime Minister will continue to spell out to the British public why we have to act.

"This is not just in relation to the fact that a very large number of British citizens were killed in the atrocities of September 11, there are much wider issues in terms of our national security and economic stability.

"We will be completely straight with the British people about the action that we are taking as this unfolds.

"We believe it is right. We have to make the case to the British people. The British people know why we are doing this. Every effort is made to keep this to an absolute minimum."

Mr Blair's spokesman refused to comment on whether the SAS had been involved in the special forces operations.

But he added: "I think it is recognised that we have world–renowned expertise in this area.

"In terms of overt ground forces – we are in detailed discussion with the US about UK military contribution but I think in any complex situation we only make announcements when it is appropriate to do so."

A senior US defence official said dozens of aircraft attacked Taliban targets as more covert ground operations were under way.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was today giving a speech on the future of Afghanistan before travelling to Washington on Tuesday to hold talks with US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The West is paying the price for turning its back on Afghanistan and allowing Osama bin Laden to hijack the country long before September 11, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was expected to say.

Mr Straw was warning of the threat "failed states" like Afghanistan pose to the world and saying the anti–terrorism coalition needs to work out a "robust plan" to rebuild that country.

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