By PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Six British soldiers were killed after an explosion hit their armored vehicle in southwestern Afghanistan, Britain's Ministry of Defense said. It was the biggest loss of life for British forces in the country since a plane crash in 2006.
The soldiers were on patrol in Helmand province at the time of the blast Tuesday evening.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the deaths marked a "desperately sad day for our country."
The attack is certain to fuel calls for the acceleration of a planned withdrawal of all U.S.-led coalition troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The war has become increasingly unpopular in the United States and among its NATO partners in Europe.
Washington has also grown frustrated with the administration of President Hamid Karzai, who has been making increasing demands of America in order to sign a deal that will allow some troops to remain past 2014, mainly in a counterterrorism and training role.
Helmand has been the deadliest province by far for coalition troops since the Afghan war started over a decade ago. Most of Britain's 9,500 soldiers are based there, and the province also has thousands of U.S. troops.
The Taliban have fought fiercely for control of Helmand because it accounts for about half of all poppy production in Afghanistan. Poppy is the main ingredient in making opium and has been a significant source of revenue for the militants.
So far this year, 60 NATO troops have been killed in Afghanistan, including 38 from the United States and 10 from Britain.
Britain has lost more troops in Afghanistan— 404 after Wednesday's killings — than any other country except for the United States, which has counted at least 1,780 deaths as a result of the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. The AP count of U.S. deaths is six less than the Defense Department's tally. At least 1,484 U.S. military service members have died in Afghanistan as a result of hostile action, according to the military's numbers.
More than 2,800 troops from all nations have died since the start of the war in Afghanistan. There are about 130,000 troops from 50 countries serving with the international military coalition.
The Helmand deaths would be the biggest loss of life for Britain in a single incident in Afghanistan since a Nimrod aircraft crashed in 2006, killing 14 service members. It would also be the largest number of casualties in a ground operation for Britain in the country and the deadliest single incident for NATO since Jan. 19, when six U.S. Marines died in a helicopter crash in Helmand province. Last August, insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing 30 American troops.
The circumstances of the explosion that killed the six British troops were unclear.
"The six soldiers, five from the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment and one from the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's, were on patrol in a Warrior armored fighting vehicle when it was caught in an explosion in the Task Force Helmand area of operations," said Lt. Colonel Gordon Mackenzie, a spokesman for the British Task Force in Helmand. The British defense ministry said the families of the British soldiers have been informed.
Helmand's deputy provincial police chief, Kamaluddin Sherzai, said the incident happened while the troops were on patrol outside Lashkar Gah city. He said they were about 15 miles (25 kilometers) east of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
Afghan National Army Major Rahim Ali Almas, who was at the scene Wednesday as recovery vehicles tried to remove the destroyed tank in the distance, told the AP that the vehicle apparently hit a mine.
"Last night a patrolling convoy ... hit a roadside mine and one of the foreigners' tanks hit the mine and a number of their soldiers were killed." Almas told an AP videographer at the scene.
Cameron said that troops in Afghanistan were paying a huge price. "I do believe it's important work for our national security right here at home but of course this work will increasingly be carried out by Afghan soldiers and we all want to see that transition take place."
NATO has slowly been transitioning security control over Afghan cities and provinces to the country's security forces — which it has spent billions of dollars to train and equip. That transition will be complete at the of 2014.