- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Fighting between international troops and Taliban militants in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of three British soldiers and left as many as 22 insurgents dead.

Britain’s defense ministry said the three soldiers died in separate incidents on Thursday and Friday, bringing the country’s toll to 10 dead in southern Afghanistan in as many days and 179 dead since Britain joined the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Friday warned that British troops face a “very hard summer” in the run-up to presidential elections in Afghanistan and said Britain should brace itself for more losses, Reuters news agency reported.

Around 9,000 British troops have been joined in southern Helmand province by thousands of U.S. Marines, who launched a major offensive in the province last week. It is aimed at uprooting Taliban insurgents before elections planned for Aug. 20.

Meanwhile, thousands of mourners lined the streets of a town in southern England on Friday, bowing their heads in tribute as the bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan passed by in coffins draped with British flags.

Schoolchildren, businessmen and army veterans stood side by side in Wootton Bassett, a small market town in the county of Wiltshire, about 85 miles west of London, as the bodies of five soldiers killed between Saturday and Tuesday were flown to a nearby air force base and driven through the crowds, according to the Associated Press.

British deaths have increased sharply since British forces launched a major airborne assault last month against a Taliban stronghold near Gereshk, in Helmand, according to Agence France-Presse.

In the clash in central Ghazni province late Thursday, Police Chief Khail Boz Sherzai said 22 Taliban militants were killed in an air strike.

But U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said there were no air strikes.

In Pakistan, intelligence officials said a suspected U.S. missile strike on Friday killed three militants in the northwestern part of the country.

The attack was the latest in a string of similar strikes by suspected U.S. drone aircraft in recent weeks to target Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and his network of militants.

Mr. Brown said there was no question of pulling soldiers out of Afghanistan until the international community had finished its mission there and quelled the threat from the Taliban.

“This is a very hard summer - it’s not over,” Mr. Brown told reporters at the Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila, Italy.

More losses in Afghanistan may damage public support for the deployment and further hurt the Labor government’s already poor opinion poll ratings ahead of a British parliamentary election due by mid-2010.

From combined wire dispatches.

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