LONDON, (AFP) – Six British soldiers are missing and are believed to have been killed in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence said Wednesday, taking the British death toll in the country to over 400.
“I have the tragic duty to report that six soldiers are missing, believed killed, during a security patrol,” said British spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Mackenzie.
The ministry said an explosion had hit the soldiers’ Warrior armoured vehicle on Tuesday while they were on patrol in Helmand Province, the restive southern area where most British troops are based.
The servicemen’s families have been informed, the ministry added.
Prime Minister David Cameron described it as a “desperately sad day for our country”.
Before the explosion, a total of 398 British forces personnel had died while serving in Afghanistan since the start of operations in October 2001.
If confirmed, the deaths would be the biggest British loss of life in a single incident in Afghanistan since a Nimrod aircraft crashed in 2006, killing 14 personnel.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the incident would not deter British forces from carrying out their role as part of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
“I utterly condemn those responsible for this incident who will ultimately fail to derail a mission that is protecting our national security at home and making real progress in Helmand,” Hammond said.
“It is because of the continuing efforts of our Armed Forces, working alongside the Afghan National Security Forces, that we are on course to build an Afghanistan that can stand on its own two feet.”
Britain has around 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, but Cameron announced in July that this would be reduced to 500 by the end of 2012. Britain is due to end combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
General Sir David Richards, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff, said the six missing soldiers had been doing “a dangerous but important job”.
“Increasingly the Afghans themselves are taking the lead in providing security across Helmand. This transition is allowing Afghans to gain the confidence to reject the Taliban and live normal lives,” he said.
The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan fell in 2011, but Britain has lost more lives than any country with troops involved in the conflict except the United States.