BBC World News – 2010-07-07 00:14:36
LONDON (July 7, 2010) — British troops in Afghanistan are to hand over responsibility for the Sangin area of Helmand province to US forces, the BBC understands.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox is expected to tell MPs on Wednesday the move could happen by the end of the year.
Almost a third of the 312 UK deaths in the war have happened in Sangin, a volatile northern district at the heart of the opium-growing industry.
Last month Britain handed over command in Helmand to a US general. Maj Gen Richard Mills, of the US Marine Corps, assumed control of all Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) troops in Helmand on 1 June.
Mr Fox is expected to announce Britain will concentrate on Helmand’s busy central belt, leaving the north and south to the US.
Of the 312 UK deaths in Afghanistan since 2001, 99 have taken place in Sangin, currently home to 40 Commando Royal Marines.
It is the latest part of the province to be handed over to US control after the town of Musa Qaleh in March and the Kajaki dam last month.
BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale said Mr Fox is likely to face some difficult questions, not least from the families of the British servicemen killed in Sangin.
He said: “They may well ask… ‘why have we sacrificed so much just to hand over responsibility to the Americans’?”.
The Ministry of Defence will also be concerned it will be seen as a pull out or withdrawal by the British, with US forces bailing out UK troops, our correspondent added.
He said Mr Fox, backed by commanders on the ground, is likely to argue the transfer makes military and strategic sense as Sangin is now under US command and there are more US troops on the ground.
He is also expected to tell MPs Britain is not lowering its profile or commitment to Afghanistan.
Sangin has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting the British military has endured since World War II, and contains a mix of rival tribes.
The UK’s 8,000 forces in Helmand are greatly outnumbered by the 20,000 US Marines sent there by President Barack Obama.
Conservative MP and former British army officer, Patrick Mercer, said the handover was a routine move and should under no circumstances be considered a retreat.
He told the BBC: “It’s absolutely straightforward and normal in coalition warfare like this for units to serve under foreign command, but it’s not necessarily desirable.
“There are now enough troops for this no longer to be necessary and any suggestion that British forces are being beaten out of Sangin or returning with their tails between their legs is not just disingenuous, it’s actually disgusting.”
The latest British casualty of the war in Afghanistan died in a UK hospital on Monday after being injured in an explosion in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand the day before.
The soldier, from 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, was on patrol when he was caught in the blast.
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