Britain 'must hold resolve' in Afghanistan, minister warns

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The Independent Online

Britain must hold its resolve in Afghanistan, the Defence Secretary insisted today, as the UK death toll equalled that of the Falklands War.

The milestone was reached as two soldiers from the Royal Scots Borderers, 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, were killed by an explosion in Sangin in Helmand province last night. Their families have been informed.

A total of 255 British servicemen and women have now died since operations in Afghanistan began in October 2001.

The pair were not involved in Operation Moshtarak, a major offensive against insurgents in central Helmand due to begin in the coming days.

But Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth warned yesterday that British casualties were a "very real risk" during the bid to clear militants from areas surrounding the town of Marjah in Helmand.

Today he said: "We have seen an intense, hard and bloody period in Afghanistan but, as we prepare to consolidate our progress with the launch of Operation Moshtarak, it is imperative that we hold our resolve. The national security of the UK and the safety of its citizens depends on that.

"Our presence in Afghanistan is vital in preventing it from once again becoming a haven for terrorists who would seek to threaten the UK.

"In taking the fight to the insurgents, providing security and hope for the Afghan people and building up their own security forces, we will - and must - succeed."

Taliban fighters have been given the choice of laying down their weapons or facing "overwhelming force" from thousands of UK, US and Afghan troops.

Chief of the Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup said while the Falklands milestone would attract attention, British troops would continue their work regardless.

He said: "We remember and honour all those who have given their lives in the line of duty and pay tribute to the significant progress that they have helped to achieve.

"Sad milestones such as this naturally attract attention in the UK, but in theatre our people continue resolutely and courageously with the task of assisting Afghans to build their own future.

"Day after day, service personnel from the UK and from our partner nations are putting their lives on the line in order to make possible the progress we have seen, and are continuing to see, in Helmand province. We owe it to them to show resolve and to give them our utmost backing."

Afghan defence minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak said he was "deeply saddened" to hear of the most recent British casualties.

He went on: "The deaths of UK, ISAF and Afghan service personnel and civilians are always tragic, but I hope that it is of some comfort to the families that their sacrifice is not in vain. The scourge of extremism and terrorism affects us all and we will continue to confront it together.

"I look forward to the day when the Afghan security forces are able to take full responsibility for Afghanistan's security. We are trying very hard to make this day happen as soon as possible.

"Working together, we are making progress and the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) is increasingly taking the leading role. But for now we continue to need the support of our international friends and partners, including the UK.

"We will never forget that, in our hour of need, you stood by us."

The latest two British casualties, who were serving with the 3 Rifles Battle Group in Sangin, were killed by an improvised explosive device while on a foot patrol.

Task Force Helmand spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield said: "Two of our comrades have been cruelly taken from us, but their bravery and fortitude will not be forgotten."