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Afghan fighting claims third soldier in as many days

The death toll of British service personnel in Afghanistan rose to three in as many days today after a soldier was killed by an explosion.

The soldier was caught in the blast near a check point in Nad-e-Ali, Helmand, during the ongoing offensive to recapture Taliban strongholds. Next of kin have been informed.

Despite the death British commanders said Operation Moshtarak was "well on track" and the insurgency was "levelling off" across the targeted area.

In Kabul insurgents dealt another blow to security when they launched a four-hour attack killing at least 17 people and wounding dozens more.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the suicide attacks as an "outrage".

Today the family of the airman killed by a blast on Wednesday night paid tribute to the "best son, brother and boyfriend any of us could ever have wished for".

Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate, from Bury St Edmunds, died just 14 days short of his 21st birthday.

He was caught in an explosion north of Kandahar Airfield.

Comrades described the airman, from 2 Squadron, Royal Air Force Regiment, who only deployed to Afghanistan in January, as a "rising star".

The machine gun specialist was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) during a vehicle patrol outside the airfield.

He had been looking forward to moving in with his girlfriend, Caley, and had ambitions to join the UK Special Forces.

His family said in a statement: "We cannot find the words to describe the tragic loss of our dear son Luke.

"He was the best son, brother and boyfriend any of us could ever have wished for.

"He died doing the job he loved and always wanted to do.

"He will be in our hearts always and our thoughts forever."

Air Commodore Malcolm Brecht, Commander Kandahar Airfield, said: "An enthusiastic, loyal and dedicated member of the Royal Air Force Regiment, he was a willing volunteer for his tour of duty in Afghanistan and epitomised the very best the service represents - loyalty, respect, selflessness, service and excellence."

Flying Officer Gary Butler, Officer Commanding D Flight, said: "He was an immensely capable Gunner, destined to become a rising star of the future.

"Physically and mentally robust, he set an example to all who knew and operated with him."

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said: "He was a young man who showed great promise as an airman and was a loyal comrade to his colleagues.

"My deepest condolences are with his family and friends at this time."

A soldier from A Company, 4th Battalion The Rifles, part of the 3 Rifles Battle Group, died yesterday near Sangin after his patrol was fired upon.

And the death of the soldier from 28 Engineer Regiment, attached to the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, earlier today brought the toll for British forces to three in three days.

A total of 266 British servicemen have died since the conflict began.

The latest death comes as British commanders said Operation Moshtarak was going well.

Speaking in London, Major General Gordon Messenger said: "The operation's well on track.

"Insurgent activity across the area is levelling off and in some cases experiencing a bit of a lull, but some problem areas remain."

He said General Nick Carter, Commander of Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, "remains very confident about how it's going".

"We are in the phase now where the locals are very much looking for signs of enduring commitment to the area.

"They are looking for signs of permanence and for their local police and army to deliver."

Almost a fortnight since the offensive in central Helmand was launched, the "vast majority" of the area around Marjah is now under coalition control.

Mr Brown condemned the suicide attacks in Kabul after bombers struck at hotels used by foreigners.

Up to nine Indians were killed, including government officials, as well as an Italian diplomat and a French national.

Three Afghan police were killed and six more officers were among the 38 people wounded.

The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Mr Brown's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister condemns today's suicide bomb attacks in Kabul in the strongest possible terms.

"Outrages like this will not prevent the successful conclusion to the international efforts to return Afghanistan to peace and security."

The Kabul blasts were the first terrorist incident in the Afghan capital since a January 18 assault on government buildings by teams of insurgent gunmen and bombers.