- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

KABUL | Insurgent attacks killed three British soldiers in the southern Afghanistan region where thousands of U.S. Marines pushed forward with the biggest anti-Taliban offensive since the hard-line Islamist regime was toppled.

The British deaths came as gunmen in the east abducted 16 mine-clearing personnel working for the United Nations.

A soldier from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards died in an explosion while on a foot patrol near Gereshk in Helmand province Sunday, the Ministry of Defense said. In the same area Saturday, a rocket-propelled grenade killed one soldier and a roadside bomb killed another soldier, the British Defense Ministry said Sunday.

The attacks underscore the dangers that foreign troops face in the Afghan countryside, known for its suspicion of foreigners.

It was not clear whether the British casualties had been involved in the Marine operation, which began Tuesday farther south in Helmand. Taliban militants frequently use roadside bombs in their fight against Afghan and foreign forces in the country.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Helmand offensive “the first significant one” since President Obama ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to try to reverse militant gains.

“We’ve made some advances early. But I suspect it’s going to be tough for a while,” Adm. Mullen told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

The admiral described the goal of the Marines’ push as not just driving out the Taliban from areas they control, but securing the region to allow the Afghan government to function.

“We’ve got to move to a point where there’s security … so that the Afghan people can get goods and services consistently from their government,” Adm. Mullen said.

The Obama administration expects the total number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to reach 68,000 by year’s end. That is double the number of troops there last year but only half as many as are now in Iraq.

In the country’s east, meanwhile, gunmen kidnapped 16 Afghan mine clearers as they traveled between Paktia and Khost provinces on Saturday, said Paktia’s police chief Azizullah Wardak.

Although insurgents operate in the area, Mr. Wardak could not say who was responsible for the kidnapping. Similar incidents have happened twice before in Paktia but were resolved successfully, he said.

Mr. Wardak criticized the demining team for going into the area without informing the police.

Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, and the increase in violence amid a thriving Taliban insurgency has slowed clearance work. Some 50 people are killed and maimed by mines every month.

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