British troops leave Helmand in further move towards total Afghanistan withdrawal

Task Force Helmand comes to an end after eight years of frontline operations

The UK's command of military headquarters in Afghanistan has been formally handed over in the latest major step towards the drawdown of British troops.

British-led Task Force Helmand closed yesterday after eight years of frontline military operations involving tens of thousands of UK servicemen and women.

Its functions will now be absorbed into the wider US-led Regional Command (South West) in the latest step towards the withdrawal of UK troops from the country, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.

The milestone marks the end of the 16th Task Force Helmand operation for the British-led coalition task force, which also included soldiers from the US, Denmark and Estonia, and at its height had 137 bases across central Helmand Province.

The move is the end of the UK-led combat mission in Afghanistan, but British forces will continue to support their Afghan counterparts in Helmand - providing training, advice and assistance until the end of UK combat operations later this year.

It comes after Task Force Helmand moved from provincial capital Lashkar Gah, where it had been based since 2006, to Camp Bastion in August.

Its disbandment yesterday is the latest in a series of steps marking Britain's withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan - due to be complete by the end of this year.

Last month the MoD announced the closure or handover of three frontline bases in Helmand, leaving just one outside Camp Bastion.

Some 448 British forces personnel or MoD civilians have died in Afghanistan since the start of operations in October 2001.

The latest was Sapper Adam Moralee from 32 Engineer Regiment, who died on March 5 in Camp Bastion when he was injured while preparing equipment to be brought back to the UK.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said: "At this important point in the final year of the UK's lengthy and crucially important combat mission, it is only right to reflect on the significant achievements - and sacrifices - of the past eight years.

"The servicemen and women who have fought under the command of Task Force Helmand have protected the security of the UK and its people; prevented international terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base; and created the conditions for a brighter, more secure and more stable future for the country.

"However, the job is not over yet and UK troops will continue to operate in often risky and challenging conditions in Helmand supporting the Afghan forces and continuing the redeployment effort, until UK combat operations are concluded later this year."

Despite the closure of Task Force Helmand, UK troops will continue their mission in central Helmand province until the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) mission draws to a close at the end of the year.

The number of British personnel in the province has reduced from a peak of more than 10,000 to around half that number as Afghan National Security Forces have taken the lead in security across Afghanistan.

British troops will remain in Camp Bastion this year, either working in the coalition force under 5,000-strong predominantly-US Regional Command (South West) , which will support Afghan National Security Forces during this month's presidential elections, or supporting the redeployment of equipment back to the UK.

At a ceremony to mark the end of Task Force Helmand, its final commander Brigadier James Woodham, said: "This is a significant moment in the drawdown of British forces in Afghanistan.

"It has been an honour to serve as the last commander of Task Force Helmand and command the soldiers of 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, on operations.

"The task force has achieved so much since 2006 and I pay homage to all of those who have served under the task force.

"We are leaving Helmand in a better place and the Afghan National Security Forces are well set to continue to deliver security to the region."

Deputy commander Regional Command (South West), Brigadier Robert Thomson, who will be its senior British officer, added: "Having served in the province back in 2009, I have witnessed the progress delivered here by British forces under Task Force Helmand.

"In Regional Command (South West) we will continue that great work, supporting the Afghan National Security Forces and the people of Helmand, until the end of 2014 to see out the mission here alongside our US comrades."

So far more than 1,578 vehicles and items of major equipment have been redeployed from the front line and are being made ready for future operations

The MoD has also announced that a contract worth up to £20 million has been awarded to Coventry-based Morgan Advanced Materials, for maintenance and servicing of its Cougar fleet of armoured vehicles, which includes Wolfhound and Mastiff vehicles, as they return from Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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