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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 03:01 GMT 04:01 UK
UK troops set for Afghan role
Royal Marines from 42 Commando S Machine Group check their equipment on HMS Ocean
3 Commando Brigade is currently on exercise in Oman
British troops could be deployed in Afghanistan if a ground assault is launched, the UK's chief of defence staff has said.

Admiral Sir Michael Boyce also warned that military action in Afghanistan could continue well into next year.

But four days of "carefully targeted" air strikes were already causing some Taleban supporters to abandon the regime, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said.

We have always been aware that you have to back up air strikes with other forms of targeted action

Prime Minister Tony Blair

Sir Michael said he was giving "very close consideration" to deploying 3 Commando Brigade, currently on exercises in Oman and the UK's specialist winter and mountain warfare troops, inside Afghanistan.

"If we were to be thinking about doing any operations in Afghanistan on the ground, then clearly they would be one of the units we would give very close consideration to," he said.

Sir Michael said any deployment of ground troops would probably be only for a short period, with very clearly defined objectives.

"There needs to be a very clear reason for going in. It is not a country, as history has told us, for us to linger in, other than to go in for a very specific task and then probably withdraw again," he said.

BBC correspondent Ben Brown, speaking from Northern Afghanistan, said that any mission, however short, would still be tough for troops.

"It's absolutely freezing and the winter hasn't even begun... winter really kicks in in a couple of weeks' time.

"They will certainly need all that training, because this is an inhospitable place in winter - and don't forget plenty of armies in the past have come unstuck in Afghanistan," he said.

HMS Ocean
The HMS Ocean is carrying the troops in Oman

Sir Michael's comments, made at a Ministry of Defence press briefing, were later echoed by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

British ground troops "could be" sent in to Afghanistan, he told Channel 4 News on Thursday evening.

Asked whether British ground troops were part of "the next phase", Mr Straw said: "You heard what (General) Sir Michael Boyce... has said and that is that they might be.

"But I am not going to confirm that they are at the moment but they could be."

Asked during his diplomatic mission to Egypt about the possibility of ground troops, Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was "not sensible" to discuss the next stage of action.

Long struggle

Sir Michael warned that, despite signs the Taleban regime could rapidly collapse, coalition forces probably face a long struggle.

British chief of Defence staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce
Sir Michael: Bin Laden may be 'flushed out'

"It could be a very short haul, but we must expect to go through the winter and into next summer at the very least," he said.

Sir Michael said more than 40 targets had already been struck, including terror training camps, the Taleban's military regime and air defences.

Early damage assessments were ongoing but "encouraging", he said.

Sir Michael said he thought the pressure of air strikes would lead someone within Afghanistan to reveal Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts.

"What you can do is make support for that man so difficult that eventually someone will give him up.

"I think the pressure we are putting on the country will flush him out."

At the same briefing Mr Hoon said air strikes would continue as missions brought new targets to light and provided new intelligence to act on.

Vital role

Britain is so far the only country other than the US to have participated in the attacks on Afghanistan.

It has offered mainly a supporting, logistical role since its submarines fired cruise missiles at Afghanistan on Sunday.

Sir Michael said RAF planes had performed mid-air refuelling and reconnaissance missions since the attacks began.

About 20 operational sorties had been flown by RAF planes in the past two nights, he said.

British forces in action
RN cruise missile submarines
VC10 and Tristar refuelling planes
A3D AWACS and Canberra PR9 reconnaissance planes

He also said the coalition effort had already had an impact on "Taleban cohesion".

"Reports suggest that some of Mullah Omar's followers are starting to have second thoughts. Some are clearly defecting," said Mr Hoon.

Mr Hoon said any civilian deaths were regrettable, but stressed civilians were not being targeted.

"There's no independent verification of [Taleban] claims. We are investigating this."

And he repeated assertions that the war was against terror, not Islam.

See also:

11 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Straw denies split with US over Iraq
11 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Middle East peace vital, says Blair
09 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Allies want 'justice, not revenge'
09 Oct 01 | UK Politics
War cabinets of the past
11 Oct 01 | UK
UK's mountain warfare elite
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