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Britain's PM Defends Afghan Role

U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown
LONDON (Reuters) -- Britain must remain committed to the war in Afghanistan to help protect the world from al Qaeda attacks, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said after the number of British soldiers killed in the conflict topped 200.

Brown, who has faced severe criticism at home over Britain's role in Afghanistan, said on August16 that it had been "one of the most difficult summers" for Britain since it joined the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban in 2001.

With Afghanistan's presidential election days away, Brown warned NATO forces must remain until the Afghan government, police and armed forces are capable of assuming more control. Failure to do so would make the world more dangerous, he said.

"It is to make Britain safe and the rest of the world safe that we must make sure we honour our commitment to maintain a free and stable Afghanistan," Brown said.

Three-quarters of terrorist plots in Britain derive from the mountain areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, he added.

Violence has escalated ahead of the election on August 20. A suicide car bomb killed seven people on August 15 in the heart of the Afghan capital's most secure district. July was the deadliest month for British troops since 2001, with 21 UK soldiers killed.

Britain's defence ministry said a soldier from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was killed in an explosion while on foot patrol near Sangin, north of Helmand province on August 15. His death brought the number of British soldiers killed in the country to 201.

Brown, who is behind in opinion polls less than a year before a parliamentary election, has faced intense political pressure over Britain's role in Afghanistan in recent months.

Critics accuse him of sending too few troops to fight the Taliban with insufficient equipment, such as helicopters and armored patrol vehicles.

Brown has denied the claims that British soldiers lack resources and numbers.

"Every effort that we make is to ensure the best security and the best equipment for our troops," Brown said. "That is why we have increased dramatically the amount of resources we are spending in Afghanistan."

The rising British death toll and reports of a lack of equipment have eroded support for the war in Britain. A poll for the Times newspaper last month suggested two-thirds of voters want Britain's 9,000 troops to withdraw now or within a year.

The Stop the War Coalition, an anti-war campaign group, said the conflict in Afghanistan was "unjustified and unwinnable".

Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth said people must not despair over the amount of progress being made in Afghanistan.

"There is a real sense of momentum," he told BBC television. "We can make real progress over the next year or so."