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Eight British troops die in Afghan war in 24 hours

in.reuters.com

Eight British troops die in Afghan war in 24 hours

LONDON/L’AQUILA, Italy -july 11- – Britain said on Friday eight soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan, its worst death toll in a 24-hour period, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown said troops faced a “very hard summer” battling insurgents.

Five troops on foot patrol were killed by two blasts, the highest death toll in a single attack.

Britain has now lost 184 soldiers in Afghanistan since it joined the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, more than the 179 deaths during its campaign in Iraq that began in 2003.

Fifteen soldiers, including four officers, have been killed in the past 10 days in the fight against Taliban insurgents.

The heavy losses threaten to damage British public support for the deployment in Afghanistan and further hurt Brown’s already poor opinion poll ratings ahead of a British parliamentary election due by mid-2010.

Most newspapers led their early Saturday editions with reports of the losses, with the right-leaning Daily Mail urging Brown to “back our troops — or pull them out”.

“We cannot go on as we are, watching the bravest and best of their generation dying at the rate of more than one a day … for an ill-defined cause and with inadequate backup,” it said.

The Times said the deaths recalled the worst moments of the 1982 Falklands conflict, when British troops retook the South Atlantic islands after an invasion by Argentine forces.

“In the last ten days, the British public has had to become accustomed to the daily ritual of grim … announcements,” said the newspaper.

Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff Jock Stirrup said British troops were winning in their mission to improve security in Afghanistan ahead of a presidential election.

“But it’s going to take time and alas it does involve casualties … Our people out there know what they are there to do and they know they are succeeding in it,” he said.

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,” Brown told reporters at the G8 summit in Italy.

“But it’s vital that the international community sees through its commitments,” he said.

“Our resolve to complete the work that we have started in Afghanistan is undiminished. We must help deliver a free and fair presidential election in Afghanistan.”

Britain has boosted troop levels to around 9,000 from 8,100 to improve security ahead of and during Afghanistan’s presidential election, due to be held on Aug. 20.

DIFFICULT TERRAIN

Critics have said Britain is placing soldiers at risk by not deploying a big enough force and failing to give troops the equipment they need, especially helicopters and better armoured vehicles to withstand deadly Taliban roadside bombs.

“I think we have responded to the demands of the military for extra equipment for particular things — night vision equipment and also for armoured vehicles and the protection of these vehicles as well as the helicopters,” said Brown.

“I think you’ve got to accept that this is very difficult terrain. This is the season when we’re dealing with the Afghan Taliban.”

Most of those killed in the past few days have died as a result of bomb blasts, with the Taliban using increasingly sophisticated technology to detonate bigger and better disguised mines and bombs planted by the roadside.

The attacks are an attempt by the Taliban to stall a large-scale operation by U.S. and British troops across southern Afghanistan where the Taliban remain strong, especially in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

Britain has a variety of lightly armoured vehicles in use in Afghanistan that have proved good at handling the rocky, desert terrain but have been torn apart by bombs.

Defence experts say Britain also needs to move many more heavy-lift helicopters to the region to help with ferrying large numbers of troops over the vast distances. Britain currently has just a handful of these helicopters in the Afghan operation.

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Obama heads to Moscow for ‘reset’ summit

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Russian Matryoshka dolls decorated with images of U.S. President Barack Obama (R), his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev (C) and Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are seen on display at a market in Moscow July 3, 2009.

Obama heads to Moscow for ‘reset’ summit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama left for Moscow on Sunday promising a far-reaching effort to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations that hit a post-Cold War low under the Bush administration.

Obama is looking for progress on the outlines of a new nuclear arms pact and improved cooperation in the Afghan war effort, but deep divisions remain over U.S. missile defense, NATO expansion and the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Traveling to Moscow for the first time since taking office, he hopes to keep building pragmatic ties with President Dmitry Medvedev but is likely to have a more strained introduction to Vladimir Putin, who still dominates Russian politics.

Obama set the stage with a pre-trip assessment that Putin still had “one foot” planted in the Cold War. Putin, who hand-picked Medvedev as his successor last year and has stayed on as prime minister, rejected Obama’s criticism and insisted it was U.S. policy that needed to be updated.

Despite the testy exchange, the two sides have settled on the old issue of arms control as the cornerstone for forging a less rancorous relationship between Washington and Moscow.

“I seek to reset relations with Russia because I believe that Americans and Russians have many common interests, interests that our governments recently have not pursued as actively as we could have,” Obama told the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta ahead of the summit.

He left Washington on Sunday evening and was due to hold talks with Medvedev at the Kremlin on Monday afternoon.

On the eve of Obama’s visit, negotiators were still bargaining over how far the presidents will go in setting down markers for further cuts in nuclear arsenals. Such markers are supposed to form the basis for a treaty to be signed by December when an existing pact known as START-1 expires.

Medvedev said in an interview published on Sunday the United States must compromise on plans to deploy an anti-missile system in Europe that Russia fiercely opposes.

The summit will also yield the Kremlin’s permission to ship U.S. weapons supplies across Russian territory en route to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, sources on both sides said.

The transit deal will open up a crucial corridor for the United States as it steps up its fight against a resurgent Taliban in line with Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy.

DIVISIONS

Progress on these fronts will be touted as evidence that both sides want to put their rocky relations of recent years on a better path.

It will be harder to bridge the gap on other issues.

Obama acknowledged in the Novaya Gazeta interview “Russian sensitivities” over the proposed anti-missile shield. But he made clear he would not accept any effort by Moscow to link arms control talks to missile defense.

Moscow, which sees proposed missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat to its security, has insisted in recent weeks that the two issues are intertwined.

Putin hit back, saying Russians “are standing firmly on both feet and always look to the future”.

In an indication of the strained atmosphere, Russia’s Kremlin-controlled main television channels — the chief source of news for most Russians — have played down Obama’s visit.

Sunday evening’s main Channel One news show did not mention Obama in its main headlines and opened with a lengthy report on Medvedev exhorting Russians to save energy. Rival channel Vesti began its show talking about the death of a folk singer.

“This is being played as essentially a low-key visit that shows the American leadership’s respect for the Russian leadership,” Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre think-tank, said. “This is not some star coming to town.”

The Other Russia and Solidarity opposition movements announced plans for a protest rally in central Moscow on Monday evening to coincide with Obama’s visit.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Guy Faulconbridge and Amie Ferris-Rotman)

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