Three British soldiers killed by Taliban a day after Nato takes control

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Three British soldiers have been killed during a Taliban attack on a British vehicle patrol in northern Helmand. The men, all members of the Household Cavalry, died yesterday morning when their Scimitar light tanks came under sustained fire from insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and heavy machine guns. It was the deadliest attack to date on British forces in the south, and led to further concerns about the future of Nato's mission in the country.

Initial reports suggested two men had died and another was missing. But hours after the 7.30am attack, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that a third body had been recovered from the site, near the town of Musa Qala. Another British soldier was seriously injured during the ambush and evacuated to the main British base, Camp Bastion.

The deaths come a day after Nato took over command of operations in the south of Afghanistan, commanded by the British Lt-Gen David Richards, and underscored the hazardous nature of Nato's new mission.

"These tragic deaths underline the need for a clear strategy, with achievable objectives," said the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, Nick Harvey. "This is a vital mission, but with the head of Nato forces describing the country as 'close to anarchy', the Government must be clear about the challenges ahead."

The latest casualties bring the number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan to nine. The troops are now adopting a new policy under which they are pulling back from outlying posts to more easily defensible positions at Lashkar Gar and the heavily fortified Camp Bastion.

A total of 63 Western soldiers have been killed in action so far this year, the majority of them American. Estimates of Taliban killed are around 1,000.

Two British Scimitar light tanks were hit with RPGs when the patrol was ambushed. The Scimitar is the most heavily armoured vehicle available to British troops in Afghanistan. However, military sources said its capacity to withstand RPG attacks depended on where it is hit and from what range. Scimitars seen by The Independent in the south have been fitted with additional mesh armour to help them withstand such attacks but in this instance the armour does not appear to have proved effective against multiple RPG strikes.

Concerns have been expressed over the lack of heavily armoured vehicles available to British forces. Apart from the Scimitar, British troops rely on the open-topped "Wimik" jeep and the lightly armoured "Snatch" Land Rover, which was designed for service in Northern Ireland. US forces operate almost entirely using the more heavily protected "Up-Armoured" Humvee, while Canadian forces use G-Wagon armoured cars and the heavily armoured Lav-3.

The town of Musa Qala, where the attack occurred, has been the focus of considerable Taliban activity since the end of May when it was briefly occupied by an insurgent force several hundred strong. British commanders responded by putting a British force into the town while a small American firebase was constructed in the desert nearby. The American base has subsequently been shut down.

Fighting around Musa Qala was "heavy and sustained" yesterday, with British forces using artillery, Apache helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in support of ground troops. There were no figures for Taliban casualties, though military sources said they were likely to be considerable.

Lt-Gen Richards said: "WhileNato-Isaf regrets the loss of life, our determination remains unaltered and the mission will continue unchanged. In fact, our resolve has been hardened."

General Richards and other senior commanders are said to be extremely worried that the poppy eradication programme carried out by private American security companies has added disaffected farmers to the ranks of the Taliban.