Page last updated at 17:34 GMT, Saturday, 13 December 2008

PM pays tribute to dead marines

Gordon Brown meets troops in Afghanistan
More than 130 British military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan

Gordon Brown has used a visit to Afghanistan to pay tribute to four Royal Marines who were killed in separate explosions in the country.

Three died south of Sangin in a suicide attack involving a boy, 13, with an explosives-laden wheelbarrow.

The prime minister called on allies to share the burden of sending troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taleban.

He also pledged $10m (6.7m) to make sure the elections scheduled for next year are "free and fair".

He met at Camp Bastion - the main British military base in Afghanistan - with forces, many of whom had known the marines who were killed on Friday.

One from Arbroath-based 45 Commando was injured in an explosion in the Sangin area of Helmand province and died on the way to hospital at Camp Bastion.

In a separate incident, also in Sangin, two marines from 45 Commando and one from Commando Logistics Regiment died when a 13-year-old boy pushing a wheelbarrow towards them blew himself up.

Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai on ''burden-sharing'' with other countries in the coalition

The first fatality happened while the marine was on patrol in a Jackal, one of a number of new armoured vehicles designed to offer better protection than the controversial snatch Land Rovers

Defence Secretary John Hutton defended the vehicle, telling the BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner that if there were enough explosives involved, nothing would stop the damage.

The total number of British military personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since the start of the operations in 2001 has now risen to 132.

Since November alone, 11 British servicemen have been killed in roadside explosions or suicide bombs in the most dangerous southern part of the country as the Taleban shift tactics from close combat to guerrilla-style attacks.

'Safer in Britain'

The PM spoke of his disgust at the Taleban for using a young boy as a suicide bomber, which he said would "offend public opinion not just in Britain but right across the world".

He said the Royal Marines who were killed had "died in the front line of terror" and "would never be forgotten" for what they had achieved on behalf of Britain.

This is a dreadful tragedy, and our heartfelt condolences go to the families and friends of the men who have lost their lives
Alex Salmond
Scottish First Minister

And he praised the courage of the British forces carrying out their duty in their country, saying that "we are safer in Britain" because of the work they do there.

"Checking the Taleban, operating as the frontline against them, making sure that they cannot make advances, holding them in, and holding al-Qaeda in as well," he said.

The prime minister also went to the Afghan town of Musa Qala, control of which was won back from the Taleban last year, to talk to the Ghurkhas stationed.

New strategy

Mr Brown then went to the capital, Kabul, for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai after which he hinted at a change of strategy to tackle the "chain of terror" emerging from the Pakistan and Afghanistan mountains.

BBC political correspondent Carole Walker said this could cause concern that British forces would be placed in ever more dangerous situations, increasing the likelihood of casualties.

There is also likely to be increased pressure on Britain to deploy more troops to Afghanistan as US President-elect Barack Obama has made the fight against the Taleban a priority once he takes power in January.

Three hundred extra British troops from a Cyprus-based stand-by contingent have been deployed to the Lashkar Gah area in southern Afghanistan this week, reinforcing the 8,100 troops already in the country.

In a news conference the prime minister would not comment on whether additional reinforcements would be sent next year, but he called on allies to increase their support of the Afghans in their struggle to maintain democracy.

He also said a multi-agency civilian task force would be sent to Afghanistan to tackle corruption, which analysts believe to be endemic in government and a big contributor in boosting Taleban support.

Arbroath grief

Meanwhile, President Karzai said that no further contact had been made between officials of the Afghan Government and the Taleban after peace talks were rejected last month.

"But of course our efforts to seek solutions through peaceful means is on, and we will continue working on it," he said.

Floral tributes have been made by members of the community of Arbroath in Angus where three of the Royal Marines were based.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond said it was 45 Commando's biggest single loss in recent years.

He said: "This is a dreadful tragedy, and our heartfelt condolences go to the families and friends of the men who have lost their lives.

BBC Scotland correspondent Colin Blane said the elite 45 Commando had flown out about 10 weeks ago for their third tour of duty in the region.

He said it had been a difficult week for the Arbroath base with the funeral earlier this week of Royal Marine Alex Lucas from 45 Commando who was also killed by an explosion on patrol in Helmand province.

On Saturday three Canadian troops were killed in Afghanistan, bringing Canada's death toll to 103, since it began its military deployment there in 2002.

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