British ground troops ready to go into action 'very soon'

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As Tony Blair finalised plans on Monday for the deployment of British troops in Afghanistan, there were reports that 1,000 troops were about to be sent. The Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, confirmed that British troops were on stand-by to go into action "at very short notice".

The report, which cited senior defence officials, said that about 600 Royal Marine commandos and several hundred special forces personnel – currently taking part in a military exercise in Oman – would be deployed to join the ground assault. Four ships participating in the exercise would also stay behind to support the war against the Taliban.

Although no official confirmation has been forthcoming, the recent weekend of intensive meetings between US and British military planners means that the Government now knows the details of and has agreed to provide the military assistance being sought by Washington.

British special forces are already inside Afghanistan and ground troops and equipment are expected to be sent by the end of the week. No 3 Royal Marines Commando, experienced in mountain warfare, and currently on exercise in Oman, are expected to form an important element of the British deployment, along with the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean.

The Ministry of Defence and senior military sources last night denied reports that Royal Marines have been in action alongside US forces near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

US aircraft continued their bombardment of the Taliban frontline yesterday, with the international Islamist 55 Brigade being targeted for the first time. The fighters, seconded from Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network, are guarding the capital, Kabul, from opposition forces.

The Taliban ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, claimed that US and British aircraft bombed a hospital in Herat, in the west of the country, killing more than 100 patients and staff. He said: "It is now clear that American planes are intentionally targeting the Afghan people. The goal is to punish the Afghan nation for having chosen an Islamic system."

The American Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, insisted there was no evidence to support the Taliban accusations. "We have absolutely no evidence that that that allegation is correct. I am sure that it is not," he said.

However, the US chief of defence staff, General Richard Myers, acknowledged that it was still unclear what had happened."We don't have the evidence yet so we will spend some time to figure out what the truth is, if we can do that," he said.

Mr Rumsfeld also denied claims that a US helicopter taking part in the weekend raid on Kandahar had been shot down. The Taliban consul in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar maintained that pieces of the aircraft, "with Boeing markings", had been discovered in Baba Sahib Hills, near where US Rangers attacked.

The Allied forces have only a limited "window of opportunity" for ground action. The bitterly cold Afghan winter is due to set in from the middle of November, which also coincides with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Mr Hoon claimed that Allied forces will be closing in on Mr bin Laden. His remarks follow reports that the location of the al-Qa'ida leader had been narrowed down to a 20 square mile sector inside Afghanistan.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, added to the prospect of the Afghan crisis rapidly approaching a climax by saying that the international community must be prepared to act "very quickly" if the Taliban regime suddenly collapses.

He also made clear that international peacekeeping troops may be needed on the ground once the conflict is over, to protect the reconstruction efforts.