A British soldier was captured and killed by the Taliban after going missing from his base in southern Afghanistan yesterday. UK forces had searched frantically to find him after he disappeared, with all other operations in Helmand put on hold.
By nightfall the body of the man, from the The Highlanders, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, was discovered. He was the first British soldier to be captured in Afghanistan.
The operation to try and rescue him coincided with an unannounced visit by David Cameron to Helmand to highlight military advances against the Taliban and discuss the planned transition to Afghan security forces.
The soldier had been spotted walking off with deliberation from the Sallang checkpoint, in Nahr-e-Saraj, a district which had experienced ferocious violence, in the early hours of yesterday morning.
Accounts given by local people placed the soldier, believed to be an NCO, at a village, called Kopak, in the company of a group of Afghan men, some in uniform.
Other accounts said he had been swimming at a canal adjoining the village before being taken away and then "sold" to a local insurgent commander.
According to a farmer in the area, Naimtullah, a foreign soldier in uniform was seen leaving Kopak and heading east along a dirt track.
General Sayed Malook, of the Afghan army's 215 Corps, whose troops are being "mentored" by British forces, said: "We believe that two ANA (Afghan National Army) soldiers were with the British soldier. They all went swimming, but then our soldiers lost him. They looked for him but could not find him."
The Taliban called news agencies in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to say a Western soldier had been captured and executed in the Babaji area. "The soldier was captured yesterday evening during a firefight. When the fighting got more intense we couldn't keep him so we had to kill him," a spokesman claimed.
The hunt for the missing serviceman threw the Prime Minister's brief visit into disarray as he was forced to change his travel plans at the last moment.
After arriving at the Camp Bastion military base in Helmand province yesterday morning, he had been due to fly to nearby Lashkar Gar. But the plans were scrapped as all available helicopters were scrambled to join the hunt for the soldier. The Prime Minister instead spent the time meeting British and American troops based at Camp Bastion.
He said: "I arrived here in Helmand province and said to the military: 'Whatever you do, don't worry about taking me around – throw everything you have got at trying to pick up this young man.'"
The Prime Minister said the incident would not affect his strategy for Afghanistan, culminating in the withdrawal of all British combat troops by the end of 2014.
Four hundred troops are already returning this year, leaving some 9,500 servicemen and women behind. Mr Cameron is expected to set out plans in the Commons tomorrow to pull out another 500 next year.
He warned there would be "challenges and problems right up until the end of this mission", but he insisted that insurgents were "on the back foot" in Helmand as the operation moved into a "new phase". He said: "We can see an increasingly confident Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police Force able to carry out more operations on their own and able to respond to more incidents on their own."