British troops deploy to Afghan province amid Taliban battle

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Fierce battles were underway Tuesday between Afghan forces and the Taliban in southern Helmand province where the insurgents have almost completely captured a strategic district as Britain announced it was deploying advisers to the restive area.

The development came a day after a Taliban suicide bomber killed six U.S. troops near a Kabul base — the deadliest attack on Americans in the country since August.

A British Ministry of Defense statement late Monday said “a small number of U.K. personnel” have been deployed to Helmand “in an advisory role.” The U.K. has 450 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s training mission.

The Afghans were also sending reinforcements to Helmand on Tuesday, officials said. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said the security of Helmand was a “top priority,” according to his deputy spokesman Javid Faisal.

The Taliban have been getting closer to taking full control of the Sangin district for days, with most government buildings now in Taliban hands.

An official in Helmand said that only an Afghan army base remained in government hands, and it was surrounded by Taliban fighters. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media about the operation, the official said Afghan commandoes and special forces will try to “rescue those soldiers who are stuck in the base.”

Helmand is important to the Taliban. The lush southern province is home to endless poppy fields and the source of much of the world’s opium, which helps fund the insurgency.

Sangin has particular resonance with the British as more than 100 of their 456 fatalities in Afghanistan, after the start of the war in 2001, were in the district.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Monday suicide attack on U.S. troops that killed six near Afghanistan’s Bagram airport. Two U.S. troops and an Afghan were also wounded when the bomber rammed an explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol.

The soldiers were targeted as they moved through a village near Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan officials said.

A U.S. official confirmed that six American troops were killed and two were wounded. An Afghan was also wounded. The official was not authorized to discuss the incident publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

— Written by Lynne O’Donnell

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Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Humayoon Babur in Kabul contributed to this story.

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