Page last updated at 14:28 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 15:28 UK

Inside the brutal Afghan war zone


The latest casualty, Christopher Whiteside, was a 20-year-old trooper - his family have agreed for this footage to be broadcast

The line between life and death has become dangerously thin in Afghanistan's bloody war zone, writes BBC correspondent Ian Pannell, who reports exclusively from the front line where he is embedded with British soldiers.

Seven soldiers dead in seven days. It is a grim statistic, but it is also the reality of British losses in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Six of the seven died in operation Panchai Palang, or Panther's Claw, in Helmand in the last week.

We had been travelling on the front line with the troops from A Company, 2 Mercian, part of the Light Dragoon Battle Group.

This is a brutal, bloody struggle.

I didn't know what to do, I just stood there in shock. I just didn't have a clue where I was, it was just mad
Trooper Martin Watson after being caught up in a bomb blast

Up to 700 troops have spent the past week moving through the fields and alleyways of the "Green Zone", chasing an enemy who has chosen to stand and fight.

The progress has been slow and painful. Almost every morning within a few metres of leaving our overnight camp, we were attacked.

Despite the Nato-led mission, the Taliban were able to attack and stall the British advance.

As the troops moved out of cover, heading over a field, the crackle of gunfire sent the soldiers scattering into ditches, streams and behind walls.

'Hardcore recruits'

Close air support was called in; Apache helicopter gunships and F-18 fighter jets unleashed their fearsome firepower on insurgent compounds.

For a while there was silence and the soldiers tentatively edged forwards again, but all too soon the same scenario unfolded.

We waded waist deep in a stream, trying to get close to where the shots had come from.

Ian Pannell
BBC correspondent Ian Pannell is embedded with British soldiers

But within seconds of crawling up a slippery bank to dry land, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded overhead, followed by more gunshots.

The daytime temperature reaches 45C.

As well as body armour, guns and ammunition, the soldiers haul packs and kits that can weigh more than 50kg. This may be infantry work, but it is far from light.

The insurgents have incurred losses but there are no figures for how many have been injured or killed.

Intelligence suggests many Afghan fighters have left the area, leaving behind a hardcore of foreign recruits, in particular Pakistanis and Arabs.

They are well trained and well armed and seem to have little fear in the face of overwhelming force.

Homemade bombs

Hundreds of troops have now moved into this area of central Helmand. Their task is to drive the insurgents out and make it safe for presidential elections in August.

But hundreds of people have fled the fighting and persuading them to return and then to support the government will be difficult. The people in this part of Afghanistan have never answered to Kabul.

The biggest danger is from homemade bombs, buried in the road or walls. Almost 90 have been discovered in recent days. They are the main cause of British casualties, responsible for five of the seven deaths in recent weeks.

We are very determined and with every casualty comes an ounce or two more of determination
Lt Col Gus Fair

Progress is slow precisely because of the threat from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and the British army's advance is dependent on hand-held metal detectors.

Often, having slowed the troops down, the Taliban then open fire.

The area is riddled with insurgent bombs and the Taliban are laying more, using increasingly sophisticated and hard to detect techniques.

At just 18, Trooper Martin Watson is one of the youngest soldiers in the Light Dragoons. He was standing near a Scimitar combat vehicle when he drove on to an IED the other day.

"I didn't know what to do, I just stood there in shock. I just didn't have a clue where I was, it was just mad," he said.

Two days later one of his best friends was killed in an explosion and Martin himself had to be evacuated from the frontline.

Bloody summer

His friend has just been named by the Ministry of Defence as 20-year-old Trooper Christopher Whiteside. He is the latest British soldier to die in this campaign.

"Norm", as his mates called him, was part of a small-fire support group assigned to our platoon. We spent two days on the front line with him.

He was a quiet lad with shaggy hair who always seemed to have a smile on his face. He was part of a tight-knit group from the north of England.

Lt Col Gus Fair, commander of the Light Dragoon Battle Group, says the deaths and the more than 50 casualties are hard-felt.

Most of the injuries are light and the soldiers will return to the battlefield, but some have been badly wounded.

"It's wearing, but we're all prepared for it. For the time being our heads are held high. We are very determined and with every casualty comes an ounce or two more of determination," he said.

The insurgents have ensured another bloody summer for British forces. Reinforcements have already had to be called in and there are signs the troops are stretched.

There are probably weeks of fighting ahead and then Britain must try to bring about peace, something most Afghans have never known.

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