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UK combat troops to leave for Afghanistan

Up to 800 combat soldiers will replace the engineers as part of Britain's mission in the restive region.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2006 13:57 IST

Up to 800 British combat soldiers are preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan to replace 800 engineers as part of Britain's mission in the restive region, the defence ministry said on Monday.

Denying newspaper reports that 1,000 new soldiers were to be sent to Helmand province, a defence ministry spokesman said the rejig of personnel was in-line with a long-established plan to send a 3,300-strong force to take control of security on the ground from the US military under the umbrella of NATO.

"What they are reporting on is slightly disingenuous," the spokesman said, noting that troop numbers have been building up in time for the NATO-led peacekeeping force to take complete control by the end of July.

"There are about 600 to 800 left to come, so when they (British media) say new troops to arrive, yes, there are more infantry troops to arrive but that is not new, that was always the case," the spokesman said.

He confirmed that 800 engineers were to be rotated out of Helmand as they had finished building Camp Bastion, Britain's main military base there.

Asked whether there were any firm plans to increase the British deployment to tackle a stronger-than-expected Taliban resistance, the spokesman said he was not aware of such a proposal.

"It would surprise me if a few newspaper headlines would change that," he said, noting that any boost in military numbers required the approval of Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet and the House of Commons.

The comments came as two more British soldiers were killed in fighting against Taliban rebels over the weekend, taking the number of British troops to perish in Helmand in the past three weeks to five.

The spike in deadly violence has prompted Britain to ready 1,000 troops and extra warplanes to be sent to Afghanistan by the end of the month, The Sun tabloid reported, citing anonymous government sources

"I would expect us to see more fixed-wing and other aircraft over the next few weeks," an anonymous government source told the newspaper.

"We are on course to send in much more infantry as the deployment continues. Our guys are actually doing a fantastic job. We have said they will get whatever they need to do the job."

Highlighting the dangers faced by troops in Helmand, Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of British troops in Afghanistan, warned his forces were likely to suffer more casualties in the battle against the Taliban.