Civilian deaths 'serious setback' to Afghan mission

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The killing of 12 Afghan civilians by stray Nato rockets is a "very serious setback" to operations in Afghanistan, the head of Britain's Armed Forces said today as the death of another British soldier was announced.

The soldier, from 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, was shot dead during a firefight in Musa Qala, Helmand, yesterday evening. Next of kin have been informed.

His death was not linked to the ongoing Operation Moshtarak in which more than 1,000 British troops are working alongside Afghan forces to capture Taliban strongholds in areas around Marjah and Nad-e-Ali.

Military chiefs were pleased with the way the operation began after thousands of troops inserted into Taliban-held territory in the early hours of Saturday morning.

But the stray rocket strike in Marjah will have badly damaged efforts to win the support of the local population, seen as a key aim of the offensive.

The 12 civilians were killed when two rockets from a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars) missed their target by about 600 metres (just under 2,000ft) and hit a house.

Sir Jock told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "It is a very serious setback.

"It is not one which can't be overcome and of course the Afghans themselves, the local government, play a key role in this and they have already swung into action in that regard."

He said the operation was not about battling the Taliban but protecting the local population and added: "You don't protect them when you kill them.

"It is always damaging, but of course in any conflict situation accidents happen and we must remember that most of the civilian casualties are not caused by Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) or by the Afghan national security forces, they are caused by the Taliban."

Sir Jock cautioned that it may take a year before the latest operation could be judged a success, saying: "This a very challenging operation.

"Time is important and it is going to take time for us to persuade the locals that they should be accepting the Afghan government.

"In about 12 months we will be able to look back and say that this whole operation has been successful."

Meanwhile, Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell insisted the operation was "going very well".

He told GMTV he regretted the loss of civilian life and said: "This incident involved American troops.

"General (Stanley) McChrystal has rightly suspended the use of this particular rocket system pending an investigation because we are determined to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties to win the hearts and minds of the local population."

Speaking in Lashkar Gah, Gen McChrystal, Nato's commander in Afghanistan, said: "While this is an Afghan-led operation, I think it highlights the special partnership that we have developed that I'm very proud of.

"I would ask for the media to watch the bravery of Afghan National Security Forces and their coalition partners because I'm exceptionally proud of how they perform."

A total of 260 British service personnel have now died since the start of operations in Afghanistan in 2001.

Announcing the latest death, Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: "It is my sad duty to have to inform you that a soldier from 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, was killed by small arms fire yesterday evening near Patrol Base Minden in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province.

"He was on a patrol after dark and was shot during a firefight.

"He died a soldier, doing his duty and among his fellow soldiers; his sacrifice will not be forgotten."

Another British soldier, from 6 Rifles, also died yesterday.

He was caught in an explosion while on foot patrol near Sangin.

His death was also unconnected to Operation Moshtarak.

Operation Moshtarak - which means "together" in the Dari language - involves around 15,000 International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and Afghan National Army troops.

At least 1,000 Afghan police and thousands of Afghan soldiers are taking part, making it the biggest joint operation since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

The operation was announced more than a week ago in an attempt to warn civilians and to try to persuade less committed insurgents not to fight.