Unexplained explosion kills one British soldier and injures three

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The Independent Online

A British serviceman was killed and three others injured, one severely, after their vehicle was hit by a blast in Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed last night that the dead soldier was from 29 Commando, the Royal Artillery, and was killed in an explosion at Garmser in Helmand province, an area that has seen fierce combat with the Taliban and where a Royal Marine was killed earlier this month.

The British patrol had been on a surveillance mission to the south of the town, in an area widely infiltrated by insurgents, when they are believed to have hit a mine.

It was unclear, however, whether the blast was caused by a deliberate attack or by abandoned unexploded ordnance. The previous death, that of Marine Jonathan Wigley, 21, was almost certainly due to "friendly fire" from a US warplane.

Lieutenant-Colonel Andy Price, of the Royal Marines, said yesterday that "a patrol had gone on a reconnaissance to look at a specific piece of land and there was an explosion. It could have been a legacy mine from many years ago or it could have been a deliberate attack on us."

Brigadier Jerry Thomas, the commander of the UK Taskforce in Afghanistan, said: "My thoughts and condolences are with his family, friends and colleagues at this sad time. My thoughts are also with the serviceman who was seriously injured and I wish him a speedy recovery. This tragedy is made even more poignant during this special time of year."

Yesterday's death brings the number of British personnel killed in Afghanistan to 44 since the invasion by US and UK forces five years ago. It comes during the traditional winter lull in fighting in the country during which casualty numbers drop on both sides.

British forces have, however, been carrying out a series of operations at Garmser in an attempt to reclaim the area from insurgents who have been crossing the border from their refuge in Pakistan. During the summer, Taliban fighters twice took over the town which was taken back by Afghan government forces after heavy fighting.

Even local people who opposed the presence of Western forces in the country were angered when the insurgents burned the Afghan national flag and hoisted the banners of Jamiat-e-Ulema and Lashkar-e-Toiba, two Islamist groups based in Pakistan.

The law of the old Taliban regime is also being introduced in areas held by Islamists. Schools have been shut down and a number of public executions have been carried out. Unlike some other parts of Helmand, the Taliban have little support in Garmser because of the presence of a large number of Pakistani militants among their ranks.

However, local people have complained that British and Western forces have done little to stop insurgents from taking over their homes and using them to launch attacks.

Detailed plans are believed to have been drawn up by British commanders to clear the area to the south of Garmser. Defence sources acknowledge, however, that this has been hampered by troops being thinly stretched.

Speaking after the death of Marine Wigley, his company commander, Major Andy Plews, said about Taliban resistance: "What we didn't know was how strong it was. We were prepared for it, which is why we were able to hold them off and move safely back... But we don't have enough forces in the area to hold ground completely. That has to be done by Afghan security forces."

The British commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, General David Richards, has repeatedly asked for a reserve force of 1,000 soldiers. That has not been forthcoming. As a result, troops have had to call in air strikes which have led to deaths of civilians.