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Monday, 26 November, 2001, 21:40 GMT
First UK casualties confirmed
Parachute Regiment soldiers before being deployed in Kosovo
Paras were among those put on standby
Four British soldiers have been wounded in Afghanistan, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has disclosed.

The wounded men were airlifted back to Britain for treatment and none are thought to have suffered life threatening injuries, although one was seriously hurt.

There was no word of how the soldiers were injured, although it is thought likely they were special forces as they were not from the contingent currently stationed at Bagram airbase.

BBC defence correspondent Paul Adams said: "That to me suggests that these are special forces operating somewhere else in Afghanistan."

He said it was possible they were involved in a gun battle near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif over the weekend, when eye witnesses claimed to have seen British troops operating on the ground.

A direct result of the situation being better than anyone could have predicted rather than worse

Downing Street spokesman
Mr Hoon also confirmed UK soldiers are being stood down from their 48-hour notice for mobilisation to the region.

Mr Hoon said most of the 6,000 British troops on two-day standby for possible action in Afghanistan were being stood down from their high alert in the wake of the widespread collapse of Taleban control.

The defence secretary paid tribute to the "professionalism and gallantry" of UK soldiers working inside the war-torn country.

Range of tasks

Giving news of the injuries, he said: "British forces have been active on the ground inside Afghanistan for some time.

"Working closely with US forces they have been engaged in a range of operation tasks in different parts of Afghanistan."

The casualties were injured at the same location and during the past few days, according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary
Hoon paid tribute to the "gallantry" of UK soldiers

Mr Hoon later told BBC News one of the men's injuries were "more serious" but his condition was now stable and was not believed to be life-threatening.

The relatives of the wounded soldiers had been informed.

Later, Mr Blair's spokesman praised the bravery and courage of the injured troops, who had been part of a "very difficult and very important job".

"The country can be proud of them", he said, refusing to comment on speculation that the men were special forces troops or had been helping to rescue a journalist at the time.

'Maximum flexibility'

Detailing the changing state of alert for British troops, Mr Hoon said the "bulk" of the high readiness troops were having their 'notice to move' extended to one week.

The changing situation in Afghanistan made the decision possible but the UK would still have "maximum flexibility" to react to new developments, he continued.

Control tower at Bagram airbase
The number of troops at Bagram airport has been increased
Some soldiers from 2 Battalion Parachute Regiment and 16 Air Assault Brigade would remain on the two-day standby, added Mr Hoon, who said the number of troops at Bagram airport had been increased.

Earlier, Mr Blair's spokesman insisted Britain would continue to play a significant military role in Afghanistan with troops "ready and willing" to be deployed.

The troops were put on the 48-hour notice when there were fears that a bloodbath could occur after the fall of the Afghan capital Kabul.

'Friction' reports

The announcement by the defence secretary was "a direct result of the situation being better than anyone could have predicted rather than worse", said Mr Blair's spokesman.

The move to downgrade the state of alert comes after days of speculation alleging friction between the UK and US over when British troops should be deployed.

Mr Hoon used his Commons appearance to say there was "absolutely no truth" in reports of a trans-Atlantic rift on the issue.

He was asked on BBC Radio 4's PM programme whether British troops would be involved in the US efforts around the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar.

The minister said there was cooperation with the Americans "right across the field of operations in Afghanistan".

The BBC's Carole Walker
"A number of special forces have been wounded in Afghanistan"
Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon
"They are back in the United Kingdom"
The BBC's Paul Adams
"Four soldiers wounded and one quite seriously"

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See also:

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UK troops' limited Afghan role
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20 Nov 01 | UK Politics
US 'turning its back' on poverty
21 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Are allies split on troops?
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