Two British soldiers killed during anti-Taleban offensive in Afghanistan

Two more soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan while taking part in Operation Panther’s Claw, one of the biggest offensives against the Taleban launched by British troops in Helmand province.

Four soldiers have been killed in three days. The deaths of two soldiers on Saturday followed the announcement that Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards, and Trooper Joshua Hammond of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment were killed on Wednesday when their Viking armoured vehicle was blown up by a roadside bomb, while taking part in the same operation.

In the latest incident, a soldier from The Light Dragoons was killed by an explosion while he was on foot, and in a separate incident, a soldier from the 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment died when he was hit during a rocket-propelled grenade attack against his Scorpion armoured reconnaissance vehicle. Vikings were not involved in either of these incidents.

The Light Dragoon battle group which is now based at Camp Bastion in central Helmand, after being withdrawn from Garmsir in the south, is engaged in a “clearing” operation against the Taleban in the volatile town of Babaji which is five miles north of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, and south of Gereshk.

Soldiers from 2 Mercian are serving in the battle group. The Light Dragoons moved up to Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, when 4,000 US Marines recently took over their previous operating area in Garmsir.

The deaths of the two soldiers brought the total number of British fatalities in Afghanistan to 173.

This year has also seen one of the highest number of deaths recorded in the first six months since the operation in Helmand began in 2006. Thirty-six soldiers and Royal Marines have been killed so far this year. In 2007, 19 members of the Armed Forces were killed in the same period, last year it was 24. In 2006, 34 died in the first six months of what was then the beginning of the Helmand campaign – from March to September.

But 14 of those were killed on board the RAF Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft which caught fire and exploded in midair. It was not brought down by hostile fire.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Richardson, spokesman for the British Task Force in Helmand, said: “The loss of these soldiers and colleagues has come as a huge blow to us all.” Next of kin have been informed.

Operation Panther’s Claw (Panchai Palang) involves 3,000 soldiers from the Welsh Guards battle group, Light Dragoons battle group and 3 Scots battle group. They have seized key canal crossing points and other areas, allowing the latest stage of the mission to clear the Taleban from around Babiji.

The US-led Task Force called Leatherneck is conducting similar operations south of Lashkar Gah in a joint effort to strike at the Taleban.

“The main aims of the operations are to extend security throughout the areas so as to allow the local population to enjoy a normal life and take part in the forthcoming elections [in August] free from intimidation and violence,” the Ministry of Defence said.

The operation began just over two weeks ago with an airborne assault along the Nahr-e-Burgha canal, around ten miles to the north of Lashkar Gah, involving more than 350 soldiers from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.