UK troops' Afghan role may extend to summer

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The British peacekeeping force in Afghanistan could remain well into the summer, the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, conceded yesterday.

The 1,500 British troops leading the International Security and Assistance Force in Kabul were originally due to leave at the end of April.

But Mr Hoon told the House of Commons this week that they would remain in place until June. Yesterday he accepted they could stay even longer if Turkey, which is due to take over their role, could not settle arrangements to deploy its troops.

Turkey is still involved in discussions with the international community over the financial help it will receive for taking over the role.

Asked whether British troops' term in Afghanistan could be extended for a second time, Mr Hoon said: "I obviously hope not but we are dealing with an evolving situation, certainly with a situation that is promising in the sense of continuing the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

"That, after all, is why British forces are there. They are there to assist the Afghan people to take responsibility for their own fate, for their own future. That progress is very, very encouraging and we want to see it carry on."

The prospect of Britain's troops staying well beyond their original date to leave will alarm critics who believe the force is already overstretched and have warned of the dangers of "mission creep".

Downing Street said yesterday that a separate Royal Marine force being sent to Afghanistan for combat operations would be at full strength by the end of the month.

About 500 troops from the 1,700-strong force have already arrived at Bagram air base and are expected to be ready for operations by Monday, although Mr Hoon conceded there had been "difficulties" in airlifting troops and equipment into the country.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday that Britain had 500 soldiers from 45 Commando in Afghanistan at the moment. He said the force was expected to reach full numbers by the end of the month.

"Obviously it is for the military commanders on the ground to decide how and when forces should be deployed," the spokesman said.

On Thursday, an arsenal including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, rockets, grenades and fuses was discovered in a building on the road from Kabul to Bagram air base.