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Afghan desert key to world security, says Blair

Written by: Staff

CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan, Nov 20 (Reuters) The security of the world will be decided on the desert battlefields of Afghanistan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told his troops on the frontline of an increasingly bloody war today.

''Here, in this extraordinary desert, is where the future of world security in the early 21st century is going to be played out,'' Blair told his soldiers in remarks barred from publication until he flew out of Camp Bastion in Helmand province.

Afghanistan's western allies say the Taliban is on the run, despite a resurgence, but Blair's long-planned visit has been kept in strict hour-by-hour secrecy due to security fears.

''You may not know this, but people back home are very proud of what you do, regardless what they think of political leaders,'' he told troops in the desert province that is a Taliban stronghold and the opium capital of the world's main producer.

Fighting in Afghanistan this year is the bloodiest since US-led forces ousted the Taliban's hardline government exactly five years ago. The British troops in Helmand and other NATO troops in the south have been at the forefront of the combat.

And with the rise in fighting and a redeployment to the Taliban's southern heartland, British casualty rates here are now higher than those in Iraq, with 36 killed since June.

British military chiefs say their troops face the bloodiest fighting since the Korean War and are six times more likely to die in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

''We want to be here. We want to be doing our job,'' sergeant Chris Hunter, 31, from Swansea, told Blair at Camp Bastion in the chill morning air of an Afghan winter.

''It's a point that's lost back home.'' MORE REUTERS AB VC1632

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