Cameron visits British troops in Afghanistan

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Prime Minister David Cameron paid a pre-Christmas visit to British troops in Afghanistan on Tuesday, although his plans were upset by a dust storm, officials and media said.

Cameron had intended to visit Camp Bastion in the restive southern province of Helmand, where the majority of Britain's 9,500 troops are based, but his Royal Air Force (RAF) flight was forced to divert to Kandahar airfield.

There he met members of the RAF squadron who fly Tornado fighter jets on missions all over Afghanistan, according to media travelling with him.

Cameron admitted it was "disappointing" to have to change his plans because of a dust storm that forced the closure of the Camp Bastion runway.

He was also forced to cancel a planned meeting with the governor of Helmand in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, and a visit to a frontline base.

The prime minister had arrived in Afghanistan under a news blackout for security reasons, in a morale-boosting trip a few days before Christmas.

Wearing a black fleece, khaki trousers and boots, Cameron was shown around a Tornado jet before meeting soldiers and pilots for a chat over a mug of tea.

He also met US General James Huggins, the head of ISAF Regional Command South, for talks on military progress in Afghanistan.

Britain intends to pull out all its combat troops by 2014, starting with 500 troops next year, and Cameron indicated more could be withdrawn in 2013 to avoid a sharp pull-out in three years' time.

"I don't want to see some massive cliff-edge in 2014 -- I don't think that's practical. But I don't think we need to make hard and fast decisions at this stage," he told reporters.

He said there was "an ongoing conversation with our allies" about how and when NATO forces would be withdrawn.

"I'm absolutely clear that the British public deserve to know there is an endpoint to our involvement in Afghanistan and that endpoint is 2014," he said.

Cameron last visited Afghanistan in July, when he managed to get to Camp Bastion but decided to scrap visit to Lashkar Gah after a British soldier went missing from a checkpoint in Helmand and was later found dead.

© 2011 AFP

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