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British Harrier jets to stay on in Afghanistan

Written by: Staff

CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan, Apr 25 (Reuters) As British troops move in force into southern Afghanistan, the government today announced that Harrier jets would extend their mission in the country to support security forces battling the Taliban.

Britain is taking command of Afghanistan's NATO peacekeeping force next month and about 3,500 British troops are due to arrive in the volatile southern province of Helmand by the beginning of July, with many of them based at a sprawling camp on a hot, dusty plain.

Defence Secretary John Reid said six Harrier GR7 jets were playing a vital role in backing up ground troops, most recently Australians, ambushed yesterday.

British commanders as well as Britain's allies in Afghanistan, including the United States, had asked that the jets stay on beyond the end of their 18-month mission in June.

''I have therefore decided that we will extend the deployment here at Kandahar at least until next year,'' Reid told reporters at the main air base used by international forces in the Afghan south at Kandahar.

The Taliban insurgency has intensified in recent weeks and dozens of people have been killed in roadside and suicide bomb blasts, ambushes and raids. Four Canadian soldiers were killed in a blast on Saturday.

Reid told British troops yesterday they faced massive risks but their mission was vital for the security of Afghanistan and the world at large.

He said keeping on the Harriers and their crews would cost 20 million pounds. He declined to say when their mission might end next year.

British forces in Afghanistan are also due to get eight Apache attack helicopters, he said.

''This means we'll have a formidable fighting force in the air to give our troops cover,'' he added.

As NATO members send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, the United States is hoping to cut its troop strength in a separate force hunting insurgents and their leaders to about 16,500 from more than 19,000.

Canada already has about 2,300 troops in Kandahar. The Netherlands is due to send up to 1,600 troops to Uruzgan province, another insurgent hotspot.

But critics in some NATO countries say the troops risk getting trapped in Afghanistan's spiralling insurgency, and the almost inevitable casualties are bound to increase opposition to the deployments.

HUGE CAMP After meeting Harrier pilots and support staff in Kandahar, Reid flew to Camp Bastion, a huge British camp in the desert in Helmand province.

The province is one of the most lawless in Afghanistan, where Taliban and allied drug gangs have been operating with impunity for years.

The camp, which is still under construction as troops arrive daily, is six miles long and three miles wide and is the biggest military camp Britain has built in decades.

It will soon have an airstrip, helicopters pads, a hospital, a training centre for the Afghan army and accommodation for more than 2,000 British troops.

It is located near the main road linking Kandahar with western Afghanistan and the Helmand river valley, where about a quarter of Afghanistan's opium is grown.

Reid and British commanders said British forces will not be eradicating poppy fields but trying to ensure security for the Afghan government efforts to tackle the crop.

''You won't create friends and stability, you'll create insurgency,'' Reid said when asked if British troops would be destroying farmers' opium fields.

''We will go at this very forcibly but it will be in support of the Afghans and it will be done sensibly''.

Reuters SHB DB2118

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