Six RAF Harrier GR7 jets are to stay in Afghanistan until 31 March 2007 to support UK troops and their allies on the ground, Defence Secretary John Reid has announced.
The planes had been due to end their deployment in June but are being kept on after a request from NATO chiefs.
Speaking during his visit to some of the 3,300 British troops sent to the volatile Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, Reid said the jets were ‘an essential tool’.
He added: ‘The Harriers will continue to provide a reconnaissance capability, an air presence to reassure the Afghan people of their security and the capacity to strike against insurgents that may threaten the safety of our Armed Forces and those under their protection.’
Under the original plans, the Dutch forces were due to provide air support for NATO-led ground forces in Afghanistan.
But Reid said some NATO chiefs of staff had asked for the British deployment to be extended.
The Harrier jets, which are operating from Kandahar airbase, have been in Afghanistan since September 2004.
British troops are meant to focus on helping ‘reconstruction’ work but Reid said they might be used at times to ‘seek out and kill Taleban and al-Qaeda terrorists’.
• Second News Story
SRI LANKA CHIEF-0F-STAFF ‘CRITICAL’
SRI LANKA army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka underwent surgery yesterday after being critically injured in a suicide bomb attack on army headquarters in Colombo, in which at least eight people were killed.
Dr Hector Weerasinghe of Colombo’s National Hospital said: ‘He is not out of danger, we are operating on him now.’
The army headquarters are in a heavily guarded compound in the centre of the Sri Lankan capital.
The attack was carried out by a female suicide bomber who disguised herself as being pregnant.
She presented fake identification and said she had a pregnancy appointment at the army hospital inside the complex, officials told reporters.
At least five bodyguards and the bomber were killed in the attack, which took place as the car carrying Lieutenant General Fonseka arrived at the base.
The army blamed the Tamil Tigers movement for the blast. There was no word from the Tigers who have been observing a shaky truce.
The statement added that 27 others were wounded.
Fonseka, who suffered severe abdominal injuries, was appointed head of the army shortly after the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse last November.