British PM warns of more deaths in Afghanistan

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Prime Minister David Cameron warned Monday that more British troops would be killed in Afghanistan, after his first official trip to the war-stricken country, and would not give a firm date for a withdrawal.

Cameron said Britain "must be ready for further casualties over the summer months" and described 2010 as "the vital one" for overcoming the Taliban.

But while acknowledging pressure for British troops to come home, he refrained from giving a firm timetable.

"Our forces will not remain in Afghanistan a day longer than is necessary -- and I want to bring them home the moment it is safe to do so," he said in a statement to the House of Commons.

But it was "right not to set an artificial deadline" which might not then be met, Cameron added, describing Afghanistan as "this government's top foreign policy priority".

The British premier met President Hamid Karzai during last week's trip to Afghanistan, when he also ruled out sending more troops.

A total of 295 British personnel have died in Afghanistan since operations started in 2001 and there is growing public pressure for withdrawals. Britain has some 10,000 troops there.

Cameron said he wanted to make sure that the contracting policy of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan "does not help fund local militias or, even worse, the insurgents".

The premier's comments on deployments were echoed by Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who stressed that the Afghanistan conflict would take time to resolve.

"This is no time for us to lose our nerve and we must find the language to persuade the British people to stick with us," he said in a speech in London. "We cannot allow Afghanistan to be used again as a haven for terrorism."

Fox added that "by the end of the year, I expect that we will be able to show significant progress" through accelerated training of Afghan troops and consolidated progress in Helmand province, where much of the worst fighting has taken place.

Cameron's coalition government only took power last month after former premier Gordon Brown's Labour was defeated in a general election.

It was announced Sunday that the head of the military, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, was to quit earlier than expected but claims that this was because he had not done enough to support troops in Afghanistan have been denied.

© 2010 AFP

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