The grim milestone was expected but poignant, nevertheless, and raised fresh questions about a seemingly unending war with a rising toll of lives. Three soldiers were killed yesterday in Afghanistan bringing the number of British fatalities to 100.
The latest casualties were from the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. They were killed by a suicide bomber – a terrifying new phenomenon in this conflict and something the troops had rarely faced before either in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The men had been on foot patrol in the upper Sangin valley in the heart of the killing fields of Helmand where ferocious battles had been fought out between British, Nato and Afghan forces and the Taliban. The suicide bomber is said to have approached the patrol as it was going past a hamlet at about 11am and detonated his vest packed with explosives.
Four soldiers injured were taken to the British base at Camp Bastion, where three of the men died from their injuries. The remaining survivor is expected to make a recovery. It was the biggest single loss of life suffered by British troops in the country in enemy action since August last year, when three men from 1st Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment were killed when an American fighter dropped a 500lb bomb near their position.
The escalation in the ranks of those killed in the Afghan conflict, with many more injured, came after UK troops were deployed in large numbers in Helmand in the spring of 2006. John Reid, the Defence Secretary at the time, declared that Britain hoped to finish its mission without a shot being fired in anger. The following two years of combat saw more than five million rounds fired in what has been described as the fiercest fighting faced by British soldiers since the Korean War in the Fifties.
The youngest victim was Private Ben Ford, 18, from Chesterfield, Derbyshire, and the oldest was Senior Aircraftsman Gary Thompson, 51, from Nottingham, who was a father to five children.
According to analysts of battlefield casualties, troops serving in Helmand had a one-in-36 chance of not surviving a six-month tour of duty. During the Korean War, the death rate stood at one in 58. In Vietnam, it was one in 46; during the Falklands War it was one in 45.
One of the main reasons for British troops deploying to Helmand was that the province is one the chief opium producing regions. When the UK contingent arrived it was producing 26 per cent of the narcotic; since then this has grown to 51 per cent.
The 100th death came as British and Nato commanders were declaring that the "tipping point" had come in the fight against the Taliban and the resistance of the insurgents had been broken after taking heavy casualties, including among its leadership, which had been "decapitated". However, the Taliban were adopting different techniques such as roadside bombs and, increasingly, suicide attacks.
Amid the loss of life of British troops, more than 65 children had lost a father and one baby was even born weeks after her dad died. Of the 97 victims, not including yesterday's three, 71 were killed by enemy fire or explosives, 62 from wounds so grievous they died on the battlefield. One accidentally shot himself, one took his own life and another was murdered by a drunken colleague. A further four were killed by friendly fire. The single worst tragedy was the death of 14 airmen after an ageing Nimrod plane malfunctioned.
Last night, Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, said: "I would like to express my deepest sympathy for the family, comrades and friends of the three soldiers killed in Afghanistan this weekend. My thoughts at this time are also with the loved ones of each and every one of the 100 courageous members of the British Armed Forces who have now lost their lives in Afghanistan. They gave their lives securing freedom and stability, not just for the people of Afghanistan but, as the tragic events of 9/11 showed, for all of us."
David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader said: "We owe so much to young servicemen and women who risk their lives to fight on our behalf.
"The death toll, having now reached 100, serves as a tragic reminder of how brave and courageous they are."
Captain Jim Philippson, 29, of 7 Parachute Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, was among the first to die, in 2006. His father, Anthony Philippson, from St Albans, Hertfordshire, said yesterday's deaths would not be the last. "It was inevitable. It's not going to get better, it's going to get worse," he said. "I think it is going to turn out as big a disaster as Iraq."
*The body of a BBC radio reporter, Abdol Samad Rohani, was found in Helmand yesterday. He had reported on a drug-burning ceremony at Lashkar Gar airport on Saturday and later left home in the afternoon. Officials say he was abducted and killed.
Suicide attacks: The Taliban's latest tactic
Suicide attacks have long been used as a murderous tactic in Iraq but they have only recently been used as a regular tool in the conflict in Afghanistan. After incurring heavy losses in the autumn of last year, the Taliban started to adopt the type of suicide bombing attacks prevalent in Iraq.
Figures published by the United Nations show there were a record 140 suicide bombings in Afghanistan last year – a 69 per cent increase over the same period last year. The Taliban concentration on suicide bombings followed a change of tactics by the British military to establish a presence on the Taliban's home ground to begin reconstruction projects. Despite the presence of more than 50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, some American officials believe that the country is replacing Iraq as the deadliest place in the "war on terror". More than 6,000 people – mostly militants – were killed last year, with the highest ever number of suicide attacks, including one at the Serena hotel in Kabul, the city's most prestigious hotel used by international VIPs.
Correspondents say the militants often target Afghan and international security forces as part of their effort to topple the pro-Western Afghan government. Gereshk, formerly a busy commercial centre, has become a particular target as shops and businesses have begun to reappear, with Taliban fighters launching attacks from outlying villages.
Jenny CloverReuse content