Britain to hand control of violent Afghan area to US

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Britain was to announce Wednesday that its troops will withdraw from an area of southern Afghanistan where they have suffered heavy losses and hand control to the United States.

British Defence Secretary Liam Fox was expected to announce that British forces will pull out of Sangin district in the north of Helmand province by the end of year, reports said.

US forces, who now outnumber British troops in Helmand, will then take charge.

Sangin, a market town, has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting the British military has faced since World War II.

Of 312 British service personnel to have died in Afghanistan since operations began there in 2001, 99 were killed in Sangin and surrounding areas.

The area is particularly dangerous because it contains a patchwork of rival tribes and is a major centre for Afghanistan's opium-growing trade.

Fox was expected to announce in parliament that British forces will refocus their efforts on Helmand's central belt, leaving the north and south to the United States, according to reports.

It is understood the withdrawal of the approximately 1,000 British troops in Sangin will not begin for several months.

The decision followed Britain handing over command in Helmand to a US general last month.

It also came as US President Barack Obama's troop surge pumps greater numbers of US forces into Helmand -- there are now some 20,000 American marines in the province.

While policymakers will strive to present the changes as simply a reorganisation of international forces in the province, observers voiced fears the move could be seen as a retreat and used as propaganda by the Taliban insurgency.

"People will assume... that this is preparing the ground for the eventual withdrawal in 2015 and it is bound, of course, to be interpreted in that way by the Taliban," said former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell.

Meanwhile, former armed forces chief General Richard Dannatt told BBC radio: "The intention when we went into southern Afghanistan was to try to get the country on its feet economically. We all know it didn't turn out that way.

"We spread our small resources thinly and that inevitably made the small number of British soldiers like flies in a honey pot and we got into this cycle of fighting."

Britain's Ministry of Defence refused to confirm the withdrawal.

"UK forces continue to make real progress across Helmand including in Sangin, one of the most contested and challenging areas in southern Afghanistan," a spokesman said.

"Any changes to force laydown affecting UK personnel will be announced in the usual way."

Britain has 8,000 servicemen in Helmand, the lion's share of their 9,500 forces in Afghanistan, which are part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

Britain is the second largest contributor of forces to the Afghan war effort after the United States.

© 2010 AFP

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