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UK commander seeks reinforcement for Afghanistan

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, July 3 (Reuters) Britain today denied that its commanders in Afghanistan had asked for more ground troops and warplanes, despite media reports that additional troops would soon be dispatched to counter fiercer fighting than expected.

''Despite press reports today, commanders have not asked for extra infantry or air cover,'' junior Defence Minister Tom Watson told parliament.

''We do not go into this kind of thing in detail but the latest requests to the chiefs of staff ... include requests for enablers and engineering equipment. These requests were expected from the outset.'' Worsening violence in Afghanistan has raised worries that Britain could be forced to commit more forces from an overstretched military already straining to cope with Iraq.

Two British soldiers were killed in a rocket attack on a remote mountain base in Afghanistan over the weekend, bringing the total to five killed in the past three weeks in the initial phases of what was billed as a peacekeeping mission.

The Ministry of Defence named them as Corporal Peter Thorpe of the Royal Signals and Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi of the Intelligence Corps.

Since last month, the British have been taking part in US-led Operation Mountain Thrust, billed by its American commanders as the biggest offensive against the Taliban since they drove them out of Kabul in 2001.

The commander of British forces in Afghanistan told BBC radio he had requested some more resources, although Brigadier Ed Butler did not specify what he had sought.

''I have put in requests, which are being considered back in London as we speak, to take account of the changing circumstances,'' he said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman said troops would get whatever help they need.

''If extra resources are needed, then no doubt extra resources will be found, but that is first and foremost a matter for military assessment and military commanders to decide, not politicians.'' Britain has dispatched a force of 3,300 to the lawless southern Afghan province of Helmand this year to form part of an expanding NATO peacekeeping mission, entering the most dangerous parts of the country for the first time.

British commanders have acknowledged that they met a fiercer Taliban enemy than expected, and say they have dispatched paratroopers deep into the mountains sooner than they had planned, to establish a presence and hunt the enemy down.

Defence experts say the decision to deploy British paratroopers deep into the mountains could create a need for extra infantry to guard bases, patrol towns and back them up.

But that reveals the strain on the British military caused by waging two wars at once in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which have proven more difficult than hoped.

Newspapers have speculated that the First Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, an infantry unit attached to Butler's 16 Air Assault Brigade, could be dispatched to Afghanistan soon. But those troops returned from Iraq just five months ago.

The paratroopers in Afghanistan have also come to rely heavily on air support from Apache attack helicopters, Harrier jets and cargo and troop-carrying aircraft. More men could require more aircraft to support them.

Reuters SHB RN2305

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