Six British soldiers are missing and presumed to have been killed following an explosion in southern Afghanistan yesterday, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said.
The six were on patrol in the Helmand area when their Warrior armored vehicle was struck by the blast, the ministry said in a statement today. Assuming the deaths are confirmed, it will be the biggest loss of U.K. lives in Afghanistan since 2006 and the largest number killed in a single enemy operation, taking the total fatalities among British service personnel there to more than 400 since 2001.
“This is a desperately sad day for our country and a desperately sad day for the families concerned,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in televised comments in London. “This work will increasingly be carried out by Afghan soldiers, and we all want to see that transition take place.”
The U.K. has 9,500 troops in war-torn Afghanistan, most of them operating from Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand. The U.S.-led military coalition aims to weaken the Taliban opposition to force the insurgents into peace talks, while training the Afghan army and police to take over security by end-2014. Cameron reiterated a pledge during a question-and-answer session in the House of Commons today to withdraw British combat troops by then.
The six British soldiers were killed last night when their vehicle hit a planted roadside bomb in Helmand, Gen. Sayed Malook, an Afghan corps commander based in Helmand, said in a phone interview.
“There was a joint Afghan-U.K. troop patrol operation in a remote area outside Lashkar Gah city,” the provincial capital, he said. “One of the U.K.’s armored vehicles was struck by a roadside bomb, killing six soldiers.”
U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond explained why the British authorities were still regarding the soldiers as missing.
“There’s an operation under way now to recover the vehicle, and until we have made a positive identification of those inside it, we won’t officially declare them killed in action,” he told BBC television. “So at the moment they are missing, but the strong presumption is that they are killed in action.”
Protests over the burning of Korans at a U.S. air base led to attacks on U.S. personnel in Afghanistan last month. Two American advisers were shot dead in the Interior Ministry Feb. 25, while nine Afghans were killed and two American soldiers wounded in a suicide car-bombing in eastern Afghanistan Feb. 27.
Coalition advisers remain barred from Afghan ministries out of fear for their safety.
The biggest British casualty toll in a single incident in Afghanistan was on Sept. 2, 2006, when an explosion on a Royal Air Force Nimrod reconnaissance plane killed all 14 on board minutes after a mid-air refueling operation. A government inquiry blamed BAE Systems Plc and QinetiQ Group Plc for safety failings.
The coalition plans to shift increasingly away from a lead role in combat in the next year and toward intensified training and advising. The U.S. has 89,000 troops in Afghanistan, along with 40,000 from other nations, and all have begun to pare their numbers. International leaders will discuss the operation at a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
The families of the soldiers involved in yesterday’s explosion have been informed, the Ministry of Defense said.