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British PM visits UK troops near Afghan front line

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[December 13, 2008]  KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Saturday that the presence of international troops in Afghanistan is critical to stemming terrorism and supporting upcoming Afghan elections.

RestaurantBrown visited troops in Helmand province a day after four British soldiers were killed in the volatile region. One was killed by a roadside bomb, while three others were killed by a 13-year-old who had hidden explosives under a stack of newspapers in a wheelbarrow.

"I think that there is disgust and horror at these tactics used by the Taliban," said Brown, who described Friday's bombing as a "cowardly."

Brown traveled to Helmand's Sangin Valley, about 25 miles (45 kilometers) from where the four troops were killed. British military officials said it was the closest the country's prime minister had been to the front lines in the Afghan war.

He was scheduled to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the capital, Kabul.

Brown said that people in Britain and elsewhere were safer because of the international effort in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Britain has some 8,200 troops in Afghanistan, most of whom are based in Helmand.

American leaders say thousands of incoming U.S. troops will be sent to reinforce British forces in the south, a major shift in U.S. strategy. Most American forces have been deployed in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan. But Helmand and neighboring Kandahar have suffered from the country's worst violence the last two years.

British officials said militant bombs have become more sophisticated but not as sophisticated as those seen in Iraq. Ambushes have also become more complex, with insurgents firing from multiple angles after a bomb goes off. The officials spoke on condition they weren't identified because of government rules.

But the quality of intelligence from Afghan residents has risen over the last year, the officials said. A tipping point in Britain's fight against the Irish Republican Army came when ground intelligence started improving, the officials noted.

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British forces were tipped off by multiple sources Oct. 11 when 200 to 250 Taliban tried to launch an attack on Helmand province's capital, Lashkar Gah, in an attempt to kill the provincial governor. The officials said that months ago and "certainly a year ago" that kind of a tip-off wouldn't have happened.

Afghans don't give troops such intelligence unless they are willing to take risks and trust NATO troops, the officials said.

Brown met with Afghan leaders, including Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal, with whom he discussed the province's drug trade, the governor's food zone and the importance of next year's presidential election.

"Challenges remain but there's been visible progress from my last visit," Brown said. He noted that 18 tons of poppy seed had been seized in Gereshk district, and that 3,100 tons of wheat seed had been distributed to farmers.

British troops say the wheat program has been successful because of the global rise in wheat prices.

[Associated Press; By PAISLEY DODDS]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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