'We have lost good friends and colleagues': Tributes paid to Nimrod crew

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Tributes were paid yesterday to the British service personnel who died when their reconnaissance aircraft crashed in Afghanistan on Saturday.

The Nimrod MR2, which is believed to have suffered technical failures, was based in RAF Kinloss in Moray, a coastal town in north-west Scotland. As the families of the 14 dead were wondering what could have caused the crash, the RAF confirmed that 12 of those on board had served with 120 Squadron at the base. The Rev Duncan Shaw, the minister at the Church of Scotland's Kinloss and Findhorn parish church, summed up the feelings of the community. " There is shock and disbelief," he said.

Station commander Group Captain Chris Birks said the 12 were "very experienced".

"As well as first-class personnel, these were colleagues and friends of myself and my personnel. This is a day no-one ever wants to have to experience. The station is in mourning."

The station's flag flew at half-mast. A message on flowers outside the base read: "My heart and thoughts are with all the family and friends of those who so sadly lost their lives in Afghanistan."

Wing Commander Martin Cannard, officer commanding 120 squadron, said the indications were that it was a "tragic accident caused by a technical fault".

"We have lost good friends and colleagues. Many known personally to us over many years. I have been humbled by the commitment and determination of all of my people to do all that they can for those that have lost loved ones and friends. This will be our sole focus in the coming days," he said.

The Prime Minister and the Queen also prayed for the families of those killed, during a Sunday morning service in Balmoral.

Tony Blair, said: "This tragedy will distress the whole country and our thoughts go out to the families of those who have died."

The Ministry of Defence launched an inquiry yesterday into the crash, the biggest loss of life in action since the Falklands War. The Nimrod which crashed on Saturday was acting in a reconnaissance role for the ground action in Jerai. How it was brought down remains unclear. Niaz Mohammed Sarhadi, the district chief of Punjwai, said he saw the aircraft fall in flames from a great height. "It was very high up, flame was coming from the tail. At the same time there were flares coming out of the plane, from both sides of it."

The Taliban are thought to have a very limited ground-to-air missile capacity, probably from munitions left over from fighting in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Ministry of Defence said yesterday that it was "pretty confident" that the Nimrod crash was caused by an accident and not enemy fire. Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, dismissed Taliban claims of shooting down the plane as "propaganda".

"The Taliban regularly lie in response to events in Afghanistan. From the earliest time that we knew of this incident, the indications were very clear that this had been some sort of tragic accident", he said.

However the downing of an Hercules aircraft in Iraq last year, with the loss of 10 servicemen was, it was initially claimed, probably due to a " technical failure".

A board of inquiry subsequently concluded that it was, in fact, shot down. The investigation also revealed a fatal lack of communication between US and British personnel about previous insurgent attacks on aircraft around Balad, where the Hercules was brought down.

Concern is growing that the Taliban is able to shoot down Coalition aircraft. "There are reports that the Taliban have some SAM missile capacity," Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Felton, the commander of the British Joint Helicopter Task Force, told The Independent in June. " There have been 3-to-5 reported attempts to lock onto aircraft in the past year in Afghanistan."

A Taliban spokesman claimed that the aircraft had been shot down with a "stinger missile"; the name is used in Afghanistan as a generic term for all ground-to-air missiles, not just the Stinger missiles supplied to the Mujaheddin to the fight the Soviets during the 1980s. That claim was disputed by Mr Browne, who said the crash appeared to be a "terrible accident".

The Nimrod MR2 operates at high altitudes and is used on intelligence gathering and eavesdropping operations. The aircraft that crashed over the weekend was first commissioned in 1979 and had undergone routine safety checks before its mission.

The Nimrod MR2 has had an extremely good safety record until now. Reports from eye-witnesses of flames bursting out have added to the speculation that the aircraft may actually have been brought down by a missile.

The Nimrod was on a reconnaissance mission in an area which has seen heavy fighting during a Nato offensive against up to 1,200 heavily dug-in Taliban fighters. It is likely to have been part of a new tactic by British commanders following a change in the rules of engagement which allows them to carry out pre-emptive air strikes on the enemy based on reconnaissance.

The Nimrod's original role was to hunt for Warsaw Pact submarines in the Atlantic during the Cold War and its airframe dates from 1969, although the MR2 is an upgraded 1980s model.

Colonel Tim Collins, who rose to prominence as a commander in the last Iraq war said: "If the servicemen died because of mechanical failure of the Nimrod plane, then it confirms what I have been saying for years ­ that the UK's aircraft and helicopters are old and absolutely worn out.

"It all boils down to money and political pride. But there is no alternative, they have to find more funds or pull out. Without more resources the operation will not be bale to achieve its objective and will only lead to more casualties without any progress."

"The Nimrod has a very good serviceability record, obviously we will have checks made, but we are confident the Nimrod has a good track record. We will continue to fly on operations as required and we will take advice from what comes from the board of inquiry."

The stresses being felt at the top level of Britain's armed forces were evident in remarks made yesterday to The Guardian newspaper by the newly appointed head of the British Army, Sir Richard Dannatt who said British forces were already fighting to the limits of their capacity and could " only just cope" with the campaign.

Sir Richard said the likelihood of any significant reduction in British forces in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future was no more than a "hope ".

"We are running hot," Sir Richard said. "Can we cope? I pause, I say, 'Just'."