Britain to hand over violent Afghan area to US: minister

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British troops will hand over control of the violence-wracked Sangin area of southern Afghanistan to US forces by the end of the year, Defence Secretary Liam Fox announced on Wednesday.

He said the NATO-led ISAF force would restructure its forces in southern Afghanistan "so that it can consolidate a US marine brigade in northern Helmand which will assume responsibility for security in Sangin later this year."

Fox added: "This will simplify current command arrangements and enable UK troops to be redeployed to reinforce progress in the key districts of central Helmand."

British forces have suffered their heaviest losses in Sangin with almost 100 deaths in the market town and surrounding areas since military operations began in Afghanistan in 2001.

About 1,000 Royal Marines are expected to leave Sangin and be redeployed to central Helmand by the end of the year.

Fox stressed that the move was a logical redeployment, and not a withdrawal, because there were now more US troops in the area following President Barack Obama's troop surge.

He said British troops had made "huge progress in the face of great adversity" in Sangin.

But Fox added that he and Prime Minister David Cameron had argued when they were in opposition that British troops in Helmand were "too thinly spread and we had insufficient force densities for effective counter-insurgency.

"That is why we welcome the arrival of over 18,000 US marines whose presence is allowing us to deliver a better and more realistic distribution of tasks within the international coalition," Fox said.

Britain has 8,000 troops in Helmand, the lion's share of their 9,500-strong force in Afghanistan, which come under the command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

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

© 2010 AFP

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