KABUL: A renegade Afghan soldier remains at large after killing three British army Gurkha troops in a “suspected premeditated attack” on Tuesday, officials said, pledging a full investigation.
The killer was still on the run, but “strenuous efforts” were being made to find him, they said, voicing determination the deadly assault would not damage trust between foreign forces and the Afghan counterparts they are training.
Britain’s Defence Secretary Liam Fox called it a “despicable and cowardly act”, but insisted it would not deter British troops from their training mission.
A spokesman for Task Force Helmand, Lieutenant Colonel James Carr-Smith, said the three soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles Battle Group, drawn from Nepal, were killed in southern Nahr-e Saraj, Helmand Province.
“We believe these were the actions of a lone individual who has betrayed his International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan comrades,” he said.
In a statement, the Ministry of Defence said that the “soldiers were killed in a suspected premeditated attack by a member of the Afghan National Army using a combination of weapons”.
The killings drew parallels with an attack by an Afghan policeman last November who shot dead five British soldiers at a checkpoint in southern Helmand province, where the majority of Britain’s troops are based.
A police official in Helmand, where Britain has about 10,000 troops, said the Afghan soldier had escaped after Tuesday’s attack.
Fox said: “This is a despicable and cowardly act, and my thoughts go out to the family and friends of those who have lost their lives.
“This incident will be thoroughly investigated by ISAF and the Afghan security forces, and we will do everything we can to bring the individual responsible to justice.
“Training and developing the Afghan National Security Forces is vital to the international mission in Afghanistan and today’s events will not undermine the real progress we continue to make.
“British and ISAF forces are working shoulder to shoulder with Afghans and will continue to do so undeterred.”
The Afghan presidency called for a thorough investigation and expressed regret at a news conference, but was unable to confirm any details of the incident.
“The president was upset to hear this,” said spokesman Waheed Omar.
US General David Petraeus, who assumed command of NATO troops in Afghanistan earlier this month, also offered his condolences.
“We have sacrificed greatly together and we must ensure that the trust between our forces (Afghan and international) remains solid in order to defeat our common enemies,” said Petraeus.
Afghan army chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi said investigators “will seek to determine how this event could have occurred and we will prosecute those responsible”.
Helmand is one of the most volatile regions of southern Afghanistan, where about 1,000 British troops are expected to leave Sangin, making way for US forces, and be redeployed to central Helmand by the end of the year.
The deaths bring to 356 the number of foreign troops to have died in the Afghan war so far this year, according to an AFP tally based on a count kept by icasualties.org. The total for last year was 520.
The United States and NATO have 143,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting a Taliban insurgency, with the number due to rise to 150,000 in coming weeks.