Britain loses first woman soldier in action in Iraq

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The first British servicewoman to be killed in action in the Iraq war was among the casualties in the downing of a British helicopter in Basra at the weekend.

Flt-Lt Sarah Mulvihill, 32, is the first British servicewoman to be killed in action for 22 years. The last was Cpl Heather Kerrigan, 20, of the Ulster Defence Regiment, who was killed by an IRA landmine in Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland.

The other people who died in the helicopter crash were Wg Cdr John Coxen, Lt-Cdr Darren Chapman, Capt David Dobson and Marine Paul Collins. The deaths brought the number of British casualties in the conflict to 109 and led to renewed calls for forces to be pulled out.

The five deaths were the result of the first British helicopter to be brought down in the conflict. It was followed by some of fiercest street violence seen for months in southern Iraq as troops came under attack from mortars, blast bombs and petrol bombs. Five Iraqis, including two children, died during the clashes.

Des Browne, addressing the Commons for the first time in his new post of Defence Secretary, insisted they were "isolated" incidents. He said troops would stay in Iraq as long as necessary.

The British team in the helicopter were taking part in what was described as a routine flight to familiarise themselves with the area. Wg Cdr Coxen, 47, had recently arrived in Basra to become the head of helicopter operations.

Witnesses describe the aircraft as flying fast and low. The Ministry of Defence said the Lynx Mk 7 was fitted with the standard defensive equipment.

Flt-Lt Mulvihill, a flight operations officer, was based at RAF Benson in south Oxfordshire. She was born in Canterbury in Kent and brought up in Broomfield, near Herne Bay. She joined the RAF in May 1997 where she met her husband Lee.

Ms Mulvihill's parents, Terry and Sue Poole, a carpenter and a social worker, were on holiday in Spain when they heard what had happened. They flew back to join their son, Jason, in Dover.

Last night, her husband said: "Sarah was my best friend and my most beloved wife. She was also an adored daughter and sister, highly loved and respected by all who had the pleasure of knowing her. Her love of sport and outdoor activities was only outshone by her commitment to the Royal Air Force, of which she and I are extremely proud to be part of.

"Her loss has greatly affected and impacted on more people than anyone can comprehend. On behalf of her close family and friends, we would like to express our gratitude and heartfelt thanks to all those people who have expressed their sympathy at this most difficult of times while also wishing to thank all in the MoD, at every level, for their most gracious respect and support."

Group Captain Duncan Welham, station commander at RAF Benson, said: " Sarah was one of the Royal Air Force's finest - courageous, upbeat and unselfish. She was a dedicated officer who will be missed by us all.

"While at Benson, Sarah's lively character and commitment to colleagues and friends made her extremely popular in the workplace and station community".

Wg Cdr Coxen, 46, who was also based at RAF Benson, was originally from Liverpool and joined the RAF in 1983 before rising through the ranks.

His wife Liz and children Chloe, Ben and Georgina, said in a statement they were "deeply shocked and devastated" at his "untimely and tragic loss".

Marine Collins, 21, was serving as an air door gunner with 847 Naval Air Squadron based at Yeovilton. He joined the Royal Marines in June 2003 and won his green beret the following February. In a statement released through the MoD, his parents Deborah and Michael - thought to live in Dawlish, Devon, with his brother Mark - said he had dreamed of being a marine since the age of 10. He had recovered from a serious motorcycle crash and had worked and trained hard to fulfil the ambition. "Paul was a wonderful young man and so full of potential and zest for life. He was physically and mentally strong, though this was tempered by an intelligent, thoughtful and caring nature."

Capt Dobson, 27, is believed to have been living in Harlow, Essex, with his partner. He joined the Army in 2001 and went through officer training at Sandhurst before being commissioned into the Army Air Corps.