MoD forced to hire civilian helicopters in Afghanistan

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Indy Politics

Britain is so short of helicopters in Afghanistan that military chiefs are being forced to scour the world for civilian aircraft to support its troops after the US rejected a plea to help plug the shortfall.

An ageing fleet of just eight Chinooks is working around the clock to supply and reinforce soldiers in remote outposts facing waves of Taliban attacks. The only Chinook in the Falklands was taken away for use in the campaign.

The revelations come in the wake of the outburst by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the army chief, against the Government's military strategy last week.

The Independent on Sunday can also reveal that reconnaissance and intelligence missions in Afghanistan are being affected by the lack of smaller and more flexible helicopters. But senior military officials said that when UK commanders asked for temporary deployment of US helicopters in Afghanistan, they were told there were none to spare.

Instead, the MoD has been forced to seek out commercial operators for non-combat operations, to free more military craft for use at the front line. So urgent is the need that Britain is understood to be asking other nations that have ordered Merlin helicopters from Westland to allow the MoD to requisition them.

Just last weekend Tony Blair said: "If the commanders on the ground want more equipment, armoured vehicles for example, more helicopters, that will be provided. Whatever package they want we will do."

The revelations reinforce the view of Gen Dannatt that the military is running at full stretch in Iraq and Afghanistan, where yesterday two more Nato soldiers were killed and an Italian photojournalist was kidnapped. But it became clear this weekend that the general would not be sacked, despite saying that the presence of British troops in Iraq "exacerbates" the "difficulties we are facing around the world", and that we should "get ourselves out some time soon".

His outspoken views continued to attract fervent support from ordinary soldiers, some of them serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. One website posting from "Isquared" said: "Well done General Sir Richard. I wish he had said even more about this disgusting and disgraceful 'adventure' into Iraq."

It also emerged yesterday that British forces have detailed plans to scale down forces in southern Iraq in the next few months. Building work has already started at the British base at Basra airport, where forces will be consolidated. The main military hospital is due to move there from the Shaibah logistics base out in the desert, and Shaibah, the largest base in the British sector, would be closed next year.

Smaller bases within Basra city, which attract the bulk of attacks on British forces, would be closed as control passes to the Iraqis. Commanders hope the British deployment of 7,200 would be almost halved by the end of 2007. The Pentagon is planning to maintain US troop levels in Iraq at about 140,000 for at least four more years .

* Private Peter McKinley, 21, of the Parachute Regiment has become the first British soldier in Afghanistan to be recommended for the Victoria Cross after he saved a wounded US sergeant under heavy fire.