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Friday, 16 November, 2001, 08:49 GMT
UK troops prepare ground
Troops from 45 Commando of the Royal Marines training in Oman
Thousands of troops are still on standby
British troops are preparing the ground for further military deployments after landing in Afghanistan.

About 100 members of the Special Boat Service (SBS) arrived at the Bagram airbase near Kabul on Thursday to carry out a fact-finding mission.

The troops will begin by hunting for mines and liaising with the Northern Alliance to ensure the area is suitable for further flights bringing in both more troops and humanitarian supplies.

The SAS has already been operating in Afghanistan for some time, and the SBS is the Royal Marines' equivalent service.

Taking prompt action is an important way of helping to secure the advances that have already been made

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
Some Royal Marine Commandos and members of the Parachute Regiment could follow the SBS into the country by the end of the weekend, according to the BBC's defence correspondent Paul Adams.

The move to send in an advance party of British troops coincided with an announcement that the UK is to send its first diplomat to Kabul since 1989 following the withdrawal of the Taleban regime.

Defined tasks

Speaking on the BBC's Today programme, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the SBS were in Bagram to secure the airport and make it safe for humanitarian and diplomatic missions.

He said the involvement of British troops in a full scale military civil war was "not on the agenda".

"These forces have gone in for very specific task to break up the al-Qaeda network, to seek out Bin Laden and his associates and to ensure the end of the Taleban, " he said.

But he accepted that if you put a military force in on the ground it could get involved in "conflict that is unanticipated."

Long haul

And he said the international community had to be there for the long haul.

Earlier he announced that British diplomat Stephen Evans would be helping opposition forces set up a broad-based government.

"Taking prompt action is an important way of helping to secure the advances that have already been made during the course of the week," Mr Straw said.

News of the British deployment came as Tony Blair warned the campaign against terrorism was far from over despite his claims that the Taleban were near "collapse".

As well as the British troops, 60 French troops are to travel to Uzbekistan on Friday, and will continue to Mazar-e-Sharif and help the aid effort there.

A senior British defence source said on Thursday: "I can confirm that some of our forces are on the ground in northern Afghanistan, having arrived at Bagram airport at 1200GMT.

Tony Blair
Blair "optimistic" about peace in Afghanistan
Bagram airport, situated about 10 miles north-east of Kabul, is considered to be of key strategic importance.

Last Sunday, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed that British troops were already on the ground in Afghanistan.

It is thought that the UK forces involved were members of the SAS.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said although there were a large number of British troops on standby, "there is no assumption yet that they are definitely going to be deployed".

Frontline duties

Thousands of UK troops will remain on 48-hour standby to go to Afghanistan, MoD sources said.

The units on standby are said to include the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, the entire 45 Commando of the Royal Marines, and elements from 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade.

Mr Blair has said they could be used in future frontline offensives against the Taleban, although protection of humanitarian supplies and 'stabilising' work would be the priority.

At a news conference in London the prime minister said with Taleban resistance largely broken the chances of ensuring a stable future government for the war-torn country had improved dramatically.

The BBC's Peter Greste
"The Marines had been preparing for this kind of work"
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
"These forces have gone in for very specific reasons"

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See also:

15 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Blair upbeat on Afghan situation
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