Page last updated at 05:01 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

UK troops 'failed' by bomb safeguards in Afghanistan

Sjt Paul McAleese
Sjt McAleese was retrieving the body of a fallen comrade when he was killed

The family of a British soldier killed by a bomb in Afghanistan has said the Ministry of Defence failed to protect troops.

And a former MI6 official says Taliban militants are using fertiliser from aid projects to construct bombs.

Sjt Paul McAleese's family claims his regiment did not have enough men or the right kit to stop the Taliban planting devices daily between two bases.

In December, PM Gordon Brown said £150m would be spent to tackle the bombings.

The son of John McAleese, who led the SAS raid on the Iranian embassy in London in 1980, Sjt McAleese, 29, of 2nd Battalion The Rifles, went to the aid of Pte Johnathon Young, 18, of 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment.

Pte Young, from Hull, was blown up during a patrol which set out last August from a forward operating base called Wishtan on the outskirts of the town of Sangin, in Helmand province. Wishtan was close to another base called Inkerman.

Bombs 'planted daily'

Sjt McAleese's father-in-law, Stephen Minter, who served with the British army in Northern Ireland, told the BBC that Pte Young was blown by the force of a blast from an IED into an area which had not been cleared.

The soldier had been kneeling down to check a device uncovered by a metal detector.

He claims that when the patrol made a radio call for an IED (improvised explosive device) team, they were told it could not arrive for two hours because of a lack of helicopters.

"They couldn't wait for a couple of hours because these IEDs are normally a prelude to a Taliban ambush," Mr Minter told BBC File on 4.

Sjt McAleese, from Hereford, who was known to his friends as "Mac", got the metal detector from their quad bike and cleared a path to recover Pte Young but, while he was retrieving the body, he triggered the device that killed him.

"Wishtan and Inkerman were only 300m apart and the area in between was where they patrolled and was booby-trapped with IEDs - when Mac was there they didn't have any way of monitoring the area between," said Mr Minter.

He claimed this was due to a "lack of monitoring equipment such as CCTV and a lack of manpower to physically have men observing the ground 24 hours a day".

1. ROADSIDE IED: Hidden insurgent detonates device by wire
2. REMOTE DETONATION: Bombs can also be set off by radio or mobile phone signal
3. LANDMINE: Buried below the road surface, detonated by pressure of passing vehicle

Mr Minter added: "He [Sjt McAleese] told me basically the devices were planted on a daily basis; as soon as the IEDs were found and dug up, more were planted because of this lack of observation.

"Once darkness fell it was no man's land so the enemy had carte blanche to come in and plant some more.

"It was like groundhog day, every day they were putting their lives in their hands."

Mr Minter said he had written to the prime minister, asking: "Why do you send people to an area known to be infested with IEDs without the equipment to detect and defuse them - it's a waste of life, our forces, our men."

Prime minister's pledge

Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell said his heart went out to anyone who had lost a loved one in Afghanistan.

"But if you engage in warfare, and it's bloody with the Taliban, you cannot guarantee against loss of life," he said.

He rejected claims by Sjt McAleese's family that a lack of equipment or manpower shortage had contributed to his death.

Mr Rammell said dealing with IEDs was the government and the Army's highest priority in Afghanistan.

He told the BBC: "I do not believe the items you have listed [the lack of helicopter support or CCTV protection] were accurate, but whenever there is a fatality there is an investigation and an inquest to learn lessons that need to be applied and that process is ongoing."

Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, told File on 4 that one of the ways the Taliban obtained fertiliser for explosives was to commandeer supplies given as aid to farmers to persuade them to grow wheat rather than poppies.

"There have been cases, not very many, where fertiliser provided by aid organisations had ended up in Taliban safe houses," said Mr Barrett, who is now part of a team monitoring the work of the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee, which targets al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In December, Gordon Brown announced an extra £50m a year for the next three years to be spent on equipment aimed at countering the IED threat, such as hi-tech mine detectors.

Mr Rammell told the BBC that the money would also pay for an increase in the number of bomb disposal experts.

"We have been doing everything possible to increase the numbers, we announced in April a 200-strong specialist force, we announced an extra £150m, there is no area that is higher priority for us," he said.

"But we are facing a bloody and a ruthless enemy that have increased the numbers of devices they plant and we are trying to respond to that."

File on 4 is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 2 February , at 2000 GMT, repeated Sunday, 7 February, at 1700 GMT. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer after broadcast or download the podcast.

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