Two British soldiers killed in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

A suicide bomber has killed two British soldiers who were on a “hearts on a mind” mission to meet members of the local community in Helmand.

The men, from the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, were on a foot patrol near the town of Sangin with Afghan forces two of whom also died in the explosion.

The attack took place in an area which had seen rising fatalities among UK and allied forces through roadside bombs and mines. Five soldiers were killed in a twin bombing during Operation Panther’s Claw earlier this year – the joint highest fatality figure in a single incident during this conflict. Last December a 13-year-old boy killed three Royal Marines after approaching them while pushing a wheelbarrow in which a bomb was hidden under papers.

However, measures taken in recent times, including the specialist anti-IED (improvised explosive devices) vehicles had succeeded in countering some of the attacks in recent weeks.

According to local people the attack took place by two men on motorbikes, one of whom detonated his explosive device. It is unclear whether the second man was shot or arrested. An investigation has begun into finding possible accomplices in nearby villages.

The relentless toll of deaths and injuries from bombs and mines, accounting for 85 per cent of deaths and injuries in the last year among Western forces, has led to road moves being undetaken in heavily armoured convoys.

During Gordon Brown’s recent visit to Helmand it was announced that £160 million would be spent on combating the IEDs including new equipment and training. Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth stated yesterday that 22 Chinook helicopters had been ordered allowing for move by air thatn the increasingly vulnerable road convoys.

However, a key part of the blueprint presented by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in the country, calls for soldiers “ to get out from behind the high walls of their bases and out of there armoured vehicles” to mix with the population. British commanders have also stressed that whenever possible they favour interaction with people they are working with. Foot patrols have, thus, become necessary to carry out these plans.

Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: "It is with deep sadness I must inform you that two British soldiers were killed this afternoon near Sangin in northern Helmand province. They were both from 3rd Battalion, The Rifles. They will be sorely missed by us, their comrades, but their sacrifice will not be forgotten."

International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, who is currently visiting Afghanistan, said "Of course this morning our thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends and colleagues of those brave soldiers who died. But what I saw yesterday in Helmand province convinced me, not just from talking to our commanders but to our soldiers, to our civilians working in the province, that this has not just been a year of great sacrifice but a year of real progress."

Mr Alexander, who was due to meet the Afghan president Hamid Karzai, adde "We recognise that there isn't a military-only solution here - that's why we are also working to strengthen the state." He insisted that Mr Karzai's promises to root out corruption in Kabul had to be "rapidly translated into actions".