East Anglians to face Taliban offensive

MARK NICHOLLS Hundreds of soldiers from the eastern region are being sent to strife-torn southern Afghanistan in what their commanding officer last night described as their most dangerous mission for years.

MARK NICHOLLS

Hundreds of soldiers from the eastern region are being sent to strife-torn southern Afghanistan in what their commanding officer last night described as their most dangerous mission for years.

Troops from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment - which recruits in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex - will head to the volatile Helmand province in the next few weeks to deal with a feared spring offensive by Taliban fighters. Their deployment comes as defence secretary Des Browne announced yesterday that Britain's military commitment to southern Afghanistan is to be increased by around 800 troops by the end of this summer, bringing the total UK deployment in Helmand province to 5,800.

The 1st Battalion's commanding officer, Lt Col Stuart Carver, said his soldiers had been training hard for months in preparation for what will be a tough deployment to attempt to bring stability and security to the troubled region.

"The risks will be the same as for the forces already there to date," he said. "There are clearly a large number of people in Helmand who do not want security and stability. They range from the Taliban to the drugs lords, so there is going to be a significant risk.

"I am not expecting an easy ride."

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The 1st Battalion - nicknamed The Vikings - has a long history of deployments in Northern Ireland, it served in Kabul in 2002 in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban, and Iraq last year. But Lt Col Carver said the imminent deployment was the most dangerous operation the Royal Anglians had faced for some time. "You only have to look at the statistics, the number of contacts, casualties and the number of rounds fired. This is a whole step change from what we have done before," he said.

"Some of the soldiers are a little nervous but that is a good thing in some respects but they have all done their training and they are prepared as well as they can be."

British soldiers have faced fierce resistance from Taliban militia in Helmand, where the bulk of the UK's 46 fatalities in Afghanistan have been suffered.

The Royal Anglians, who are based in Pirbright, Surrey, will take over from 42 Commando Royal Marines, which have faced daily firefights with the Taliban. Soldiers from the Light Dragoons, based at Swanton Morley and currently in Helmand, have seen regular action.

And as the harsh Afghan winter eases, there are reports that the Taliban may be re-grouping for a spring offensive.

The changes come as 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines reach the end of their tour of duty in Helmand in April.

In a written statement to MPs, Mr Browne confirmed that they will be replaced by units drawn principally from 12 Mechanised Brigade, which will include the Royal Anglians. It has been decided that Harrier GR7 and GR9 jets, Apache attack helicopters, Viking all-terrain vehicles and Royal Engineer support units currently in Helmand will remain until April 2009, he said.

Last month, former Nato secretary-general Lord Carrington accused France and Germany of "not pulling their weight" by providing troops for frontline duties in the south, where the Taliban maintains control over large areas, and warned that Afghanistan could sound "the death knell" for the alliance.

Mr Browne said: "As with any military operation, those forces assigned to operations in Afghan-istan are subject to periodic rotation. Preparations for the next such rotation are under way now. These build on the progress we have made in Helmand in the six months since July 10, 2006, when I informed the House of our current deployments in Afghanistan. By the late summer, personnel numbers in southern Afghanistan should settle at around 5,800."