Minister criticised for avoiding Commons

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Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, has been criticised by MPs for staying in his Scottish constituency instead of making a statement to Commons over the worsening crisis in Afghanistan, which claimed the lives of two more British soldiers at the weekend.

Tom Watson, a junior defence minister, had to face MPs instead. Mr Browne told colleagues that he could not get down to the Commons in time to answer an emergency question tabled by the Tories and allowed by the Speaker, Michael Martin. He was carrying out a constituency surgery.

The Government was left facing a charge of complacency over the worsening situation in Afghanistan. Officials from the Ministry of Defence confirmed that plans were being drawn up to send hundreds more combat troops to Afghanistan. One Tory frontbencher said: "It's appalling that the Secretary of State was not here to answer questions. We were careful to avoid making statements every time a soldier was killed, but not to be here on a Monday is a big mistake."

The MoD denied reports that commanders had called for armoured vehicles, Apache attack helicopters and Harrier GR7 jets to provide close air support. The MoD said there were no plans to increase the total force of 3,300 soldiers on the ground. After graphic reports at the weekend of a shoot-out in which Taliban forces had a British unit pinned down for two hours without air support, MPs from all sides questioned whether Britain had deployed sufficient forces to meet the threat of the resurgent Taliban. There was criticism of John Reid, the former defence secretary, for suggesting they hoped to get through the war without a shot being fired in anger.

Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, said such remarks showed that the Government had been "naive". But MoD officials defended Mr Reid, saying he had been referring to the changing role of the British mission after the "search and destroy" mission by the US troops.

An MoD source said the deaths of the British forces were regretted, but the Taliban were suffering "massive" losses.

Such remarks are likely to be treated sceptically by critics of the Government's handling of the Afghanistan operation.

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