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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 07:18 GMT
Afghans 'almost fired on UK troops'
Royal Marine Commandos at Bagram airport
Were British troops put at risk?
The Northern Alliance "came within an ace" of opening fire on British troops as they were flown into Bagram airport, according to Tony Blair's special representative in Afghanistan.

I asked Dr Abdullah, the foreign minister, not to take any hasty action because he was extremely angry

Paul Bergne, Tony Blair's adviser to Afghanistan
An advance party of about 100 troops, believed to be members of the Special Boat Service, arrived at the heavily-fortified airport in November in C130 transport planes.

But permission was not sought beforehand from Northern Alliance commanders guarding the base, former diplomat Paul Bergne told MPs.

Giving evidence to the Commons foreign affairs select committee, Mr Bergne said he has never had a satisfactory explanation for the breakdown in communication which potentially put British troops at risk.

'Messy situation'

The Ministry of Defence said it could not confirm Mr Bergne's statement, but a spokesman said: "As far as we are concerned all the negotiations and discussions had taken place."

The prime minister's official spokesman also refused to confirm the account.

But he added: "We have never denied this was an extremely tricky, messy, difficult situation.

"We have never pretended everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds - military conflict is not like that."

But later Defence Minister Lord Bach said that the government had informed the Northern Alliance who was "going in" to Bagram.

"That's exactly what we did. The confusion that there was was sorted out before fvery long and the fact is that we settled down there very quickly afterwards and everything has been fine since - the Royal Marines and Northern Alliance troops get on famously."

But shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin said he would be demanding an "immediate explanation" from the government.

He told BBC News: "The government should make a statement to parliament to clear this up and if the prime minister cannot clear it up one can only conclude that the prime minister's ambition to put Britain on the world stage got miles head of the safety of British troops."

Urgent telegrams

Mr Jenkin's comments came after Mr Bergne told MPs: "I was only informed about the immediately impending arrival of British troops by the Afghan foreign minister, Dr Abdullah, by telephone approximately half an hour before the first aeroplane flew in.

The Afghan commander of Bagram airfield...said that they had come within an ace of opening fire

Paul Bergne
He went on: "I was able to send some fairly urgent telegrams to the Foreign Office asking them to investigate what was happening, to try and stop any further arrivals until the problem had been discussed with the Afghan government.

"I asked Dr Abdullah, the foreign minister, not to take any hasty action because he was extremely angry and he agreed not to.

"When I got to Bagram airport about five days later I understood from the British CO (Commanding Officer) that he had had discussions with the Afghan commander of Bagram airfield, who said that they had come within an ace of opening fire."

Asked if he had a satisfactory explanation as to why the British had failed to communicate adequately with the Afghan administration, Mr Bergne replied: "No."

Peace-keeping force

Mr Bergne, a former diplomat who was appointed as Mr Blair's special envoy in the region last year, told the committee an international peace-keeping force would be welcomed more in some parts of Afghanistan than others.

"On the streets in Kabul people are very positive to that. I think they are fed up with the depredations of warlords and militias and unofficial armed groups.

"I think it will get more difficult outside Kabul.

"There, people are less understanding of the need for that and more traditionally tied into support for some of the armed groups that have been causing problems."

He said it was "a mistake" that Britain should be the most important contributor of the force in Afghanistan because of the history between the two countries.

The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
"The government says it was a messy, difficult situation"
Minister for Defence Procurement, Lord Bach
"Any confusion that there had been was sorted out"
Conservative defence spokesman Bernard Jenkin
"The government should make a statement to parliament"
See also:

22 Jan 02 | South Asia
Afghan donors urged to hurry
16 Nov 01 | UK Politics
UK troops land in Afghanistan
16 Jan 02 | South Asia
Kabul airport back in business
16 Nov 01 | UK Politics
UK troops prepare ground
21 Jan 02 | South Asia
Donors pledge Afghan aid
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