Britain to commit extra battalion to Nato

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The Independent Online

Britain is poised to send extra troops to Afghanistan after Nato's Riga summit ended with no significant pledges from other countries to send more soldiers and only a partial deal to use existing forces more flexibly.

Significantly, the proposed UK deployment will not be dependent on any withdrawal from Iraq. Military planners are said to have decided that sending a battalion-sized additional force is possible.

Tony Blair, who visited Afghanistan last week, is said to be sympathetic to the request for reinforcements and agrees with the assessment of commanders that the next few months will be crucial for the Western presence in Afghanistan.

News of the possible reinforcements came as two Nato soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb attack in Logar and a suicide bomber killed himself and a civilian in Kandahar while attacking a Canadian convoy.

At the end of a two-day meeting in Riga, the Nato secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said that 26,000 of the 32,000 alliance soldiers will now operate without serious restrictions on their movement.

But the deal fell short of the hopes of President George Bush and Mr Blair that other European nations would take on the Taliban in the dangerous Helmand province in the south of Afghanistan. In Riga, Macedonia and Bulgaria were the only nations to offer more soldiers, with a pledge to send a rifle company each, though Spain will deploy two small teams to liaise with the Afghan forces. Pressure was put on countries to abandon restrictions on the use of their forces and the Netherlands and Romania agreed to scrap theirs while France will allow its soldiers out of Kabul. Seven other nations agreed to reduce such so-called "caveats" and officials said the changes would be the equivalent of freeing-up around 2,000 troops.

All countries will allow their soldiers to come to the aid of other Nato troops in an emergency and Mr De Hoop Scheffer said those circumstances would be defined by the alliance commander on the ground.

A Nato source in Kabul said the removal of the caveats would be welcome, but forces were so tightly stretched across the country that it simply would not be feasible to move them in anything like enough numbers to the combat zones in the south and east.

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