First soldier dies in 'armoured bus'

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A British soldier was killed in Afghanistan's Helmand province over the weekend when his heavily armoured Warrior vehicle struck a roadside bomb.

It is thought to be the first time a soldier has died in one of the 25-ton tracked vehicles in Afghanistan. Together with the British Army's Mastifs, they are often used as armoured buses to move soldiers to and from outposts which ring the hotspot town of Musa Qala, because they used to be considered "mine-proof".

British officials said the soldier from the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, was travelling to a patrol base south of Musa Qala. The death of the Gurkha, who has not been identified, brings the number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001 to 125. It comes less than two weeks after the death of 28-year-old Yubraj Rai, who was serving with the same battalion.

The spokesman for British forces in Helmand, Commander Paula Rowe, said: "Everyone in Task Force Helmand is saddened by the death of this soldier. While there are no words to ease their loss, our heartfelt sympathies go to his family, friends and fellow soldiers at this difficult time."

Senior military officials have warned that Taliban bombs are getting bigger in recent months, and at least three Warriors have been damaged "beyond repair" by blasts in the past eight months. Two Royal Marines were killed on Wednesday when their open-top Jackal vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near Garmsir in the south of the province.

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, yesterday defied the international community to stop him negotiating with the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, after returning from London where he had talks at Downing Street last week. During a news conference at the presidential palace, President Karzai offered Mullah Omar asylum, if he agreed to talk peace. London and Washington maintain they will not support negotiations with Taliban extremists such as Mullah Omar. But in a surprise ultimatum, President Karzai challenged those who did not support his plans.

"If I hear from [Mullah Omar] that he is willing to come to Afghanistan, or to negotiate for peace, I, as the President of Afghanistan, will go to any length to provide protection," he said.

The mullah, who led the Taliban to power in the mid-1990s, remains one of America's most wanted terrorists. He was responsible for harbouring Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan in the run-up to the 11 September attacks in 2001. There is a $10m bounty on his head and he features on a United Nations blacklist, requiring member nations to freeze his assets, block his travel and deny him arms.

But Mr Karzai said: "If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices: remove me, or leave, if they disagree."

It is not the first time the President has extended an olive branch towards Mullah Omar, who is widely believed to direct the insurgency from a hideout in neighbouring Pakistan. Last summer Mr Karzai invited the Taliban leader to meet him, and last month he claimed to have asked the King of Saudi Arabia for help with negotiations.

One senior Western diplomat said: "The 'Remove me or leave' thing appeals to a domestic constituency, rather than an international one. It's probably a bluff, albeit a fairly clever one. The fact that there are elections in the near future almost certainly plays into his concerns."

Gordon Brown told Parliament last December that it was time to engage tribal leaders, but insisted there would be no talks with the people orchestrating the insurgency.

The Taliban insist they will not negotiate until the 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan leave.

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