A bomb apparently dropped by an American fighter jet called in for air support killed three British soldiers in southern Afghanistan, officials said Friday. Two soldiers were seriously wounded.
A British soldier secures the area near a suicide blast outside Kabul, July 6, 2007. Three British soldiers have been killed in southern Afghanistan in a suspected 'friendly fire' incident, the Ministry of Defence said on Friday. Two other soldiers were injured. [Reuters]
The British unit was on patrol Thursday evening in Helmand province when it came under Taliban attack, the British Ministry of Defense said.
"During the intense engagement that ensued, close air support was called in from two US F-15 aircraft to repel the enemy. One bomb was dropped and it is believed the explosion killed the three soldiers."
They were the first British soldiers killed in friendly fire in Afghanistan, although joint operations between US and British forces in Iraq have been marred by "friendly fire" deaths caused by the failure of equipment and personnel in correctly identifying allies.
Britain did not identify the soldiers, from 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment. It said an investigation was planned.
British troops have been battling militants for months in Kajaki, where repairs are taking place on a hydroelectric dam that will be able to supply close to 2 million Afghans with electricity.
"There are a handful of different reasons why this tragic incident has happened and we are not in a position at the moment and I don't think we will be for some time to find out exactly what has happened," said a spokesman for British troops in Helmand, Lt. Colonel Charlie Mayo.
Mayo said both wounded soldiers were injured seriously.
The American embassy in London said "the United States expresses its deep condolences to the families and loved ones of the soldiers who died, and we wish those who were injured a speedy recovery."
After an inquest into the death of British soldier Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, 25, killed in a friendly fire attack by two American pilots in Iraq in 2003, opposition legislators in Britain called for improvements in joint identification systems.
Britain last year threatened to end cooperation with the US on the new Joint Strike Fighter jet after 10 years of development, until the Pentagon resolved concerns it was not sharing enough information about the aircraft's sensitive software with London.
Earlier this year, Britain's Defense Secretary Des Browne said that since 1990 12 British personnel had died in friendly fire incidents involving US forces in Iraq, but that there had been no such deaths in Afghanistan.
US fire has mistakenly killed five Canadian soldiers -- one last September during intense airstrikes on Taliban strongholds near Kandahar, and four in April 2002 when an American pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb near where the troops were apparently conducting a live-fire exercise.
In August 2006, a bomb mistakenly dropped by coalition aircraft killed 10 Afghan police officers on a patrol in the country's southeast.
In the most famous friendly fire case of the Afghan conflict, Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who became an Army ranger, was killed in April 2004 by fellow troops near the Pakistani border.
Britain has about 7,000 troops in Afghanistan, most based around Helmand. The latest deaths bring to 73 the number of British personnel killed in the country since the US-led invasion in November 2001.
Taliban insurgents in the east and south of the country have stepped up their attacks on Afghan and coalition forces over the last 18 months, seeking to overthrow the Western-backed government installed in 2001 after the ouster of the Taliban.
On Thursday, Afghan forces killed three insurgents, two of whom were Islamic militants from Chechnya, during a one-hour gunbattle in southern Zabul province, said local government head Fazal Bari. He gave no more details.
Meanwhile, US-led coalition troops shot dead a suspected militant and detained 11 other people during a raid in eastern Afghanistan, the coalition said in a statement.
The militant was killed Friday while "attempting to engage coalition and Afghan forces" during a raid in Nangarhar province, the coalition statement said. Eleven other men detained will be questioned "as to their involvement in militant activities," it said.
Troops recovered weapons and ammunition during the raid, the statement said.