Taliban claims over soldier deaths in doubt as killer is linked to Iran

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The investigation into the killings of three British soldiers by an Afghan colleague will try to discover if he was involved with groups other than the Taliban. Officials said they would try to ascertain whether Talib Hussein, 22, had any connection with Shia Muslim organisations linked to Iran.

He fled after attacking the men from 1st Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles, in their base in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand province on Tuesday. Hussein is a member of the Hazara community which traditionally has strong ties to Iran, and which suffered at the hands of the Taliban when they were in power in Afghanistan.

The officials stressed that any such link would not mean that the Tehran government was involved in the murders. No evidence has emerged that Hussein was involved in a conspiracy. However, a spokesman for the Taliban claimed yesterday that Hussein was a "sleeper" planted in the British ranks to carry out the killings as part of an undercover offensive.

British and Afghan officials said there was nothing to support this allegation and the soldier's background in the Shia community in Ghazni did not point towards links to the overwhelmingly Sunni Taliban. And a separate Taliban communiqué appeared to contradict the "sleeper" claim, saying the renegade soldier had "surrendered" to them and "sought refuge" after fleeing from Patrol Base 3 in Nahr-e-Saraj.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence named the three soldiers killed as Major James Joshua Bowman, Lieutenant Neal Turkington and Corporal Arjun Purja Pun. The family of Lt Turkington said they were "numb with grief" at their loss. The 26-year-old officer, from Portadown, Co Armagh, was alongside a Nepalese non-commissioned officer when Hussein is said to have fired a rocket-propelled grenade into a control room.

The Afghan soldier, who had been in the army for just over a year, then opened fire at a tent, killing the company commander – a major – and injuring four others. The major was the most senior member of the British forces to die in Afghanistan since Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was killed last July.

According to Afghan officials, Hussein appeared to have carried out a pre-planned rather than a random assault. He took advantage of being on guard duty to arm himself with a number of weapons and may have chosen the operations room for the first attack to disable command and control. He then targeted sleeping quarters used by the company commander and fled by climbing over a reinforced wall rather than the main gate. British and Afghan troops initially thought the attack had come from outside the base. The suspect was regarded as so reliable that he was often used as a go-between to settle disagreements between UK and Afghan forces.

Colonel Sheren Shah Kobadi, the commander of the Afghan Army's 3rd Brigade, who visited the base with senior British officers, said: "Investigators have come from Kabul and one of the things they would be looking at would be links with Iranian groups because the Hazara community has traditionally had strong links with Iran.

"But that does not, of course, mean the Iranian government used Talib Hussein in any way. I would personally doubt very much that would be the case. At the same time, we do not think he was a long-term Taliban agent. They are just trying to exploit the situation."

Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Herbert, the commanding officer of 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, whose troops had been partnering Afghan soldiers, said: "We are continuing our work together, this very sad incident had not put a stop to that in any form. We have all been heartened by the messages of sympathy and support we have received from Afghan soldiers." The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, sent a letter of condolence to Britain, offering his apologies for the killings which have come as a blow to the Nato mission to build up Afghanistan's police force and army.

David Cameron condemned the incident as "appalling" but said it should not change the strategy that British troops should work alongside Afghan forces. "The insurgents want us to change our approach, they want us to abandon our strategy, they want us to lose faith in the Afghan National Army," the Prime Minister added. "That would not be the right approach."

* A Royal Marine from 40 Commando was shot dead yesterday while carrying out a foot patrol in the Sangin district of Helmand, taking the British death toll in Afghanistan to 318. His next of kin have been informed.

The victims

* Lieutenant Neal Turkington's family said that joining the Royal Gurkha Rifles was one of his proudest moments. "He felt honoured and privileged to serve with such distinguished, courageous and loyal men," said the family in a statement that described him as "jovial, kind, considerate and loyal".

The statement added: "Our family were inspired by his presence, and generosity. He was relentless and steadfast in his pursuit of those causes he believed in with his passion for making a difference whatever the circumstance. We are all so proud of him – we couldn't have asked for a finer son, brother and friend." Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Strickland, his commanding officer, said he took fierce fighting in his stride and was a man other soldiers trusted with their lives.

* Corporal Arjun Purja Pun left his village in Nepal to join the British Army 15 years ago. His widow, Durga, said he was proud to be a soldier and he "died doing a job he loved". She said the family was devastated by the loss of the father of two children but added: "We are proud of the fact that Arjun was prepared to do his duty helping the people of Afghanistan."

Colonel Strickland described the 33-year-old as "a true Gurkha" and said: "To all, Cpl Arjun was a guru-ji and a trusted elder brother. His loss is a cruel one."

Sergeant Hisbahadur Thapa added: "Cpl Arjun Purja Pun was one of the best and most capable soldiers that I have known."

* Major James Bowman, the most senior member of British forces killed in Afghanistan for a year, was remembered by his family as "the best possible son and brother".

The family said in a statement that he loved the Army and was "proud of the selfless work that he and his Company were doing".

Colonel Strickland said: "He led his Company deep into enemy-controlled territory again and again. It is a bitter irony that after driving the insurgents back throughout his area, he was gunned down as he slept in the supposed security of his patrol base."

Sergeant Manoj Gurung paid tribute to the major as "a true hero" and said: "He led from the front."

"He was a very generous man and was so kind to everybody he met and worked with."