British soldier killed in Afghan ambush

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A British soldier was killed in Afghanistan yesterday - the first to die since 3,300 British troops began arriving in the lawless Helmand province two months ago.

The man, who has not yet been named, was killed in Helmand, the Ministry of Defence confirmed. Another British soldier was injured. The soldier was killed when his platoon was ambushed as evening fell in the Sangin area of north Helmand, a military spokesman in the British main base, Camp Bastion, said. The second soldier was injured in a follow-up contact with Taliban fighters in the area.

The injured soldier was evacuated to the British hospital at Camp Bastion where his condition was described as "serious".

The British military spokesman said the families of the soldiers were being informed. He declined to name the unit to which the men belonged.

The death of British soldiers based in Afghanistan has been regarded as a sad inevitability by commanders and men based in Helmand, particularly as British troops begin pushing outwards from the bases they have established into lawless rural areas of the province where Taliban control is widespread.

Violence across the south of the country has peaked in recent weeks, reaching a level not seen since the days immediately after the fall of the Taliban government to a US-led coalition in 2001. More than 500 people have died in the past three weeks, mostof them Taliban insurgents.

Speaking to The Independent last week in Helmand, many soldiers expressed their preparedness for the death of comrades in the weeks and months to come.

"We do think about the possibility of people being killed," Pte Ed Dale, 26, a sniper with 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, said. "We know it is very volatile here and we have no illusions."

The company sergeant major for C Company of the Paras, Sgt Mick Boulton, based near Gereshk, said: "You train and accept the price, it is the nature of the beast. The public must be prepared for casualties. It is winnable and it is worth winning. Don't forget that 172 UK soldiers were killed in Northern Ireland in 1972. We must keep things in perspective."

The Sangin Valley, where yesterday's fighting occurred, is an area of intense Taliban activity, close to where Helmand meets with Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces.

British troops have, in recent weeks, begun probing in to the Sangin area led by elite Pathfinder troops from the Parachute Regiment, though it is not known if they were involved in yesterday's fighting. There is also a small forward operating base in the area manned by British and American troops.

Last Sunday, British troops were engaged in a six-hour firefight in Nowzad district, close to Sangin. British paratroopers engaged in that battle told the BBC that the Taliban fighters they had encountered were a tenacious enemy but they lacked the high-level infantry training that British troops had.

At times fighting raged back and forth over walls and through buildings with only a few metres separating the two forces. Twenty-one Taliban fighters were reported to have been killed; no British soldier was killed or injured.

British troops have largely escaped the high levels of violence elsewhere in the south so far. Two British soldiers were injured by a landmine in April in Helmand. British troops escaped serious injury when two separate suicide bombings were launched against the British base in Lashkargar, the capital of Helmand, in June.

Before yesterday's deaths 47 foreign troops had been reported killed in Afghanistan so far this year. Last year a total of 129 foreign soldiers were reported killed, just under 100 of them US soldiers. The figure for 2004 was 58.