Alliance nearly opened fire on UK troops

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The Independent Online

British troops narrowly avoided being attacked by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan when they flew to secure Bagram air base because of a communications breakdown, Tony Blair's special envoy to Central Asia revealed yesterday.

Paul Bergne told MPs that Northern Alliance commanders "came within an ace" of ordering their soldiers to open fire on the 100-strong contingent of Special Boat Service marines. His graphic description of the near-disaster on 15 November prompted immediate demands for a Ministry of Defence statement on the incident.

Mr Bergne told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the crisis arose because permission to dispatch an SBS advance party had not been sought from the Alliance, which was guarding the base.

He said: "I was only informed about the immediately impending arrival of British troops by the Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr Abdullah, by telephone approximately half an hour before the first aeroplane flew in.

"I was able to send some fairly urgent telegrams to the Foreign Office asking them to investigate what was happening, to try and stop any further arrivals until the problem had been discussed with the Afghan government." Mr Bergne asked Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Northern Alliance spokesman and now the Afghan Foreign Minister, "not to take any hasty action because he was extremely angry, and he agreed not to".

He said: "When I got to Bagram airport about five days later I understood from the British Commanding Officer that he had had discussions with the Afghan commander of Bagram airfield, who said they had come within an ace of opening fire."

Last night Downing Street sought to play down the "colourful" comments of Mr Bergne, who was appointed a special envoy last year by the Prime Minister. Admitting the deployment had not been "as smooth as everybody might have liked", Mr Blair's official spokesman insisted: "There was contact between our forces and the Northern Alliance."

Bernard Jenkin, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, demanded an "immediate explanation" from the Ministry of Defence. "We can't continue to run military operations in the hope that we will always be lucky. These are British soldiers' lives at stake."

The MoD said it could not confirm Mr Bergne's claims. However, a spokesman said: "As far as we are concerned all the negotiations and discussions had taken place."

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