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U.S. Troops To Take Over From British In Southern Afghanistan

British soldiers take up positions during a major offensive in Helmand Province.
LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers will take over security from British troops in the Musa Qala area of southern Afghanistan as Washington builds up its force as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy, Britain said today.

The British government said the move was a first step in a "rebalancing" of forces in the southern province of Helmand to ensure NATO forces are fully effective in countering Taliban insurgents and protecting civilians.

Helmand is the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between U.S. and NATO forces and a resurgent Taliban.

About 500 British troops based in the Musa Qala district, in the northeast of the province, will move in the coming weeks to central Helmand, the most heavily populated part of the province where most British troops are already based.

There will be no change to Britain's overall force of around 9,500 troops in Afghanistan.

Twenty-three British troops have been killed in Musa Qala since British forces first deployed there in 2006. Control of the town of Musa Qala has passed back and forth between British forces and the Taliban in recent years.

U.S. President Barack Obama is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to seize insurgent-held areas before a planned 2011 troop drawdown.

The new strategy, designed by U.S. and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal, puts greater emphasis on securing Afghan population centers and on training Afghan security forces so that they can gradually assume control.

The arrival of U.S. reinforcements "allows us to rebalance all our forces to achieve much improved force densities in central Helmand delivering better protection of the Afghan people," Major General Nick Carter, the British commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, said in a statement.

The improving situation in Musa Qala and nearby Now Zad had also made the move possible, he said.

Further changes in how the forces are deployed were likely "in due course," the government said.

Mainly due to the U.S. surge, troop numbers in Helmand have risen from around 7,700 to more than 20,000 over the last year.

Britain's opposition Conservatives, favorites to win an election due within weeks, have said British troops in Helmand could be stretched too thin to conduct a successful counterinsurgency strategy.

British, U.S., Afghan and other troops last month launched a major offensive in the Marjah area of Helmand -- the biggest since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

The hotspot for British forces in Helmand in recent weeks has been the Sangin area in the east of the province, where six British soldiers were killed in the first week of March, bringing their total losses to 272 since 2001.