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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 13:38 GMT
Kabul mission extension 'possible'
Tories say the Paras have been well received
UK Paras on street patrol in Kabul
Tony Blair has conceded that UK troops could still be taking the leading role in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan after their withdrawal deadline.

The prime minister's comments came as the Conservatives suggested Britain had put troops into the Afghan peacekeeping mission without knowing how to get them out.

Turkey is probably also concerned about where this peacekeeping force is going and has therefore not made a commitment

Bernard Jenkin
Tory defence spokesman
Until now the UK has insisted that its 1,500 troops would be out of Afghanistan by 30 April with Turkey taking over the lead role in ISAF.

But Mr Blair said on Friday that negotiations for the handover were still ongoing.

He said: "I had a good conversation with the Turkish Prime Minister a few days ago, and President Bush said he had also expressed his strong support for the Turks taking over ISAF.

"I think in principle they are strongly in favour but there are details that have to be tied down, just as we had to tie down details."

Quizzed as to whether British troops would pull out on time, Mr Blair replied: "I hope so, but obviously we will have to see how these negotiations with the Turks go."

Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin said he believed other countries were reluctant to take over the helm.

British peacekeeping troops in the Afghan capital Kabul were involved in another shooting this week.

Soldiers from the Parachute Regiment returned fire after they were shot at on Wednesday, the Ministry of Defence said.

There were no casualties and army spokesmen in Kabul say the troops have generally received a "fantastic welcome".

Praise for troops

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Jenkin said such shooting incidents were "inevitable" in any peacekeeping operation.

And he praised the "incredible job" being done by British soldiers.

Instead, his concern was over possible mission creep in Britain's long-term involvement in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul.

Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary
Hoon says there may be talks about the force staying longer
Soldiers from the 2nd Parachute Regiment were being replaced by another regiment, said Mr Jenkin.

That was a "clear indication that they are planning to stay very much longer with a substantial number of troops than initially intended".

Mr Jenkin argued that plans to hand over leadership of the force to Turkey looked in jeopardy.

"Turkey is probably also concerned about where this peacekeeping force is going and has therefore not made a commitment," he said.

High expectations

"The secretary of state has now written to me to say they have only made an expression of interest."

The Tory spokesman said there was a danger of expectations for the peacekeeping force being too high, both in Afghanistan and in the UK.

The 4,000 troops of the ISAF have been sent by the UN to help maintain security in Kabul during the six-month term of the interim administration led by Hamid Karzai.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said the terms of Britain's involvement had not changed and the current UN mandate for the force lasted until June.

"I am sure there will be suggestions that it should continue, that will clearly have to be discussed with the international community," Mr Hoon told Today.

'Considerable responsibility'

"I indicated when we sent British troops to Afghanistan that our leadership role would remain until the end of April.

"We are still in discussions with other countries, including Turkey, about their likely taking over of that responsibility but it is a considerable responsibility.

"Equally, we always maintained that British forces would remain in Afghanistan until the end of the UN security mandate."

That does leave it open for UK soldiers to be working in Kabul beyond June.

Tony Blair gave a cool response, however, when interim leader Mr Karzai said he would like to see many more international troops joining the peacekeeping effort.

See also:

21 Feb 02 | South Asia
British troops 'fired on' in Kabul
19 Feb 02 | South Asia
Shooting threatens Kabul stability
18 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghan shooting row sparks inquiry
15 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Straw caution on more troops
31 Jan 02 | UK Politics
UK cool on extra Afghan troops
07 Jan 02 | South Asia
Blair urges support for Afghanistan
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