Fourteen British service personnel died yesterday when the Nato aircraft in which they were travelling crashed 12 miles west of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It is the single biggest loss of British military personnel in either Iraq or Afghanistan since the "war on terror" began.
The aircraft was thought to have come down owing to a technical fault at 1.30pm UK time. The deaths of the 12 RAF personnel, one Royal Marine and one soldier on board bring to 36 the number of British military who have died in the country. Some 15 have been killed in combat, seven in the past four weeks.
The Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, said: "At this stage all the indications are that this was a terrible accident and not the result of hostile action." However, the aircraft came down in an area close to where Nato forces were fighting insurgents.
The aircraft involved was a Nimrod MR2, a maritime patrol craft which can hold up to 25 and the mainstay of the RAF's patrol fleet since the 1970s, when it replaced the Shackleton.
A spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, for which the aircraft was on a mission when it crashed, said enemy action had been discounted at this stage. A force spokesman, Major Scott Lundy, said he had heard the Taliban were claiming to have shot the aircraft down but he said that was "absolutely false".
The Taliban, fighting to oust foreign forces from Afghanistan, invariably claim to have shot down aircraft that foreign forces and the government say came down accidentally.
An indication that the cause of the crash was an accident rather than a missile was that, shortly before the aircraft disappeared, it made an emergency call. "It went off the radar and crashed in an open area in Kandahar," said Major Lundy. "There was no indication of an enemy attack."
Abdul Manan, a witness in Chalaghor in Kandahar province, said the plane crashed 100 yards from his home. He said it hit the earth with a huge explosion that "shook the whole village".
The crash will have a political and military impact on the Government, defence expert Major Charles Heyman said. "It's going to have an effect on the troops on the ground. And it's always going to have an effect on domestic public opinion, people are going to say 'what are our troops doing there?'" said Mr Heyman.
"Overall, it begins to look like an unlucky operation. These soldiers are the finest infantry in the world, but they will look at each other and say 'who's next?'."
Afghan and Nato forces conducted a major military operation against insurgents yesterday in Panjwayi district, where Chalaghor is located.And yesterday further evidence of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan was released when a UN report showed that Afghan drugs production surged by 59 per cent this year in defiance of a British-led international counter-narcotics campaign. Executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, warned that the south of Afghanistan, which produced the majority of the increase in production, was displaying ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse, with large-scale drug cultivation and trafficking, insurgency and terrorism, crime and corruption.
In Kabul, US officials suggested the opium economy could "bring down" the fragile Western-backed government established in the country since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan is set to produce 6,100 tons of opium, the raw ingredient for heroin, which represents 92 per cent of the world's production this year.
The MoD has a helpline for worried relatives: 0845 7800 900
Nimrod has been in service for 30 years and replacement is overdue
The Nimrod has been a mainstay of the RAF's patrol bomber fleet since it replaced the Avro Shackleton in the early 1970s. But the aircraft is widely considered to be overdue for replacement.
The MR2 variant that crashed yesterday was due to be replaced by the MRA4, which is seven years behind schedule and, reportedly, £1bn over budget.
The Nimrod was based on the De Havilland Comet, the world's first jet airliner, which was developed in the UK and introduced commercially in the 1950s. The MR2 is normally used for reconnaissance and maritime rescue, and has been a spy plane in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
In peacetime the Nimrod has been most familiar as a search and rescue aircraft, involved in locating survivors, and was used in the Piper Alpha disaster. The crashed plane was based at RAF Kinloss, Scotland
While awaiting replacement by the MRA4, the MR2 was recently upgraded. The planes are loaded with state-of-the-art electronic detection technology and are powered by four Rolls-Royce Spey engines.
Nimrods were used in the Falklands and Bosnia, and monitored Russian naval movements in the Atlantic.
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