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UK considers reinforcing troops in Afghanistan

Written by: Staff

LONDON, July 6 (Reuters) Britain today said it was urgently considering sending more troops to Afghanistan after commanders in the field requested reinforcements because of heavy fighting.

The announcement to parliament by Defence Secretary Des Browne could herald major changes in an expanding NATO peace mission in Afghanistan, where recent violence has been the worst since the hardline Taliban were driven from power in 2001.

''I can now confirm that I have today received advice on additional deployment and I am considering it, as a matter of urgency, with the chiefs of staff,'' Browne said.

Increasing violence in the lawless southern province of Helmand has led to widespread speculation in the past few days that Britain would have to beef up its force of 3,300 troops, sent there earlier this year.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that his commanders would get whatever reinforcements they needed, but that they had yet to ask for more troops or equipment.

The British force in Helmand a wild province of barren desert, towering mountains and fertile river valleys that produce nearly a quarter of the world's heroin opium will soon become part of an expanding NATO peacekeeping mission.

NATO's goal is to replace a US-led force whose main task is hunting guerrillas with a peace force primarily concerned with reconstruction and development. Canadian and Dutch troops are operating in neighbouring southern provinces.

But the British troops have faced increasingly intense battles with Taliban guerrillas, forcing them to focus overwhelmingly on fighting a war instead of peacekeeping.

Critics have accused Blair's government of failing both to prepare the public and to equip the troops properly for such a dangerous mission. Six British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in the last four weeks, three in the past five days.

Commanders say their troops have faced a fiercer foe than expected, and they have responded by sending their paratroopers into remote mountain areas faster than planned.

The British are also taking part in a major US-led offensive, Operation Mountain Thrust, involving special forces whose role has not been publicly discussed, in high mountain villages in the south.

But the British force is small, its main fighting element a few hundred elite paratroopers who have been scattered through remote, hostile towns in Helmand's northern mountains, like Sangin where five of the six died.

They need more transport helicopters to move them around, more attack aircraft to provide air support and hundreds more infantry soldiers to patrol towns and villages after the paratroopers take them from the Taliban, defence experts say.

Britain, which joined the United States in invading Iraq in 2003, still has thousands of troops there and may find it hard to sustain a larger Afghan deployment for the long run.

Reuters SB GC1938

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