Two British special forces marines were killed yesterday after an attack on a night-time patrol in southern Afghanistan.
The deaths came after a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the patrol in the Sangin Valley, part of Helmand province.
The killings were the first to claim the lives of special forces personnel since 2003, when Cpl Ian Plank died in Iraq.
They occurred in one of the most violent areas of Afghanistan, where Western forces are engaged in vicious fighting with a resurgent Taliban.
The deaths came during a firefight in which British troops had to call up artillery, Apache helicopter gunships and Harrier aircraft in support. Air strikes during the battle are said to have led to the deaths of 12 Taliban fighters. The rapidly worsening security situation in Afghanistan led yesterday to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, announcing she would make an urgent visit to Kabul and neighbouring Pakistan, whose officials have been accused by the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, of colluding with the Taliban.
News of the latest British casualties, in which a third serviceman was injured, came on a charged day for Britain's armed forces. Yesterday, the funeral took place of Paul Collins, a Royal Marine who died with four other service personnel when a Lynx helicopter was brought down in Iraq.
An inquest recorded a verdict of suicide on Capt Ken Masters of the Royal Military Police, who was found hanged at his quarters in Basra. He was the officer commanding the Special Investigations Branch, and also involved with the prosecutions of British soldiers accused of mistreating civilians. The cases led to bitter recriminations from the ranks who say they are being made scapegoats after being sent to fight a deeply unpopular war.
On what was by coincidence National Veterans' Day, Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, said to hundreds of former servicemen and women: "We are here, of course, today to honour Veterans' Day and the events last night in Afghanistan serve as a powerful reminder of the highest price that many members of our armed services have paid across the year."
British commanders on the ground privately say that they are unclear what their mission entails exactly.
Earlier this month, Capt Jim Philippson, of 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery was killed after a firefight with Taliban fighters at Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province.
Although the bulk of the British forces are based at Kandahar and Camp Bastion in Helmand, paratroopers from the 16 Air Assault Brigade maintain a forward operating base, called Robertson, in the Sangin corridor where US-led forces battle daily with Islamist fighters.
The lethal attack on the special forces personnel took place just 24 hours after the Defence Secretary had said the use of Land Rovers in combat zones would be reviewed after claims they did not provide enough protection.
In another criticism of the inadequacy of equipment, the Commons Public Accounts Committee accused the Ministry of Defence of cutting back on its budget by downgrading kit.
The committee's chairman, Edward Leigh, said: "The department in 2005 cut the forecast costs of 19 projects ... mainly by reducing the weaponry on order or by being less demanding about specifications of kit."
Despite this, "the MoD is still unable to consistently manage individual defence projects so that our servicemen and women have the new equipment they need, when they need it and to cost".
Officer in Iraq hanged himself over pressure of work
The pressures facing a military officer who investigated claims that British soldiers in Iraq had abused civilians were so intense that he hanged himself in his barrack room in Basra, an inquest has heard.
Capt Ken Masters, 40, became "stressed and frustrated" by his huge workload as the officer commanding the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police, and sought help. But after becoming withdrawn, he took his life on 15 October last year.
He was in charge of all serious incidents involving the British military in Iraq, which included the investigation into the death of the Iraqi teenager, Nadhem Abdullah, the abuse of civilians at Camp BreadBasket and the death of a hotel receptionist, Baha Mousa.
At an inquest in Swindon, Wiltshire, Warrant Officer Philip Floyd said that he had a strong relationship with Capt Masters, who was married with two children, but had noticed a change in him as their workload increased. "I know that he had a sense of frustration in that the procedures we had to conduct in the inquiries were hindered by forces outside of our control. He found that frustrating, I found that frustrating, as did the rest of the team. But we knew there was nothing we could do. I did sense that he worried more and more as the tour went on, but it was more about the minor things than the major incidents."
The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide.
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