UK pulls troops from Afghanistan
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Britain is reducing by half the number of British troops hunting al Qaeda or Taliban forces in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries and serving as peacekeepers.
UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons on Thursday that all 1,700 members of the Royal Marines 45 Commando battle group would be withdrawn from early next month, and would not be replaced immediately.
The marines' mission -- they failed to see much of the al Qaeda or Taliban enemy -- had become a controversial one.
But as Hoon was speaking however British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a news conference British soldiers had "done a fantastic job" in Afghanistan and praised the marines' mission as a "great success."
Hoon also told Parliament the UK's contribution to the Kabul peacekeeping force would be reduced from about 1,300 to 400 troops. This would mean the total number of British forces in Afghanistan and the surrounding region would be cut from more than 4,000 now to 2,000 soldiers by late summer, he said.
On Thursday Britain handed over Turkey of command of the multinational 4,650-member International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF). (Full story)
A Ministry of Defence spokesman told the UK Press Association: "We have said since they first deployed in April that they would be deployed for three months or so. So three months later, they are returning."
The British marines' mission in Afghanistan became controversial, with the government being accused of exaggerating their likely combat role. Despite several operations, the marines had little contact with al Qaeda or Taliban forces.
There had been talk of Britain taking casualties but a series of operations -- Ptarmigan, Snipe, Condor and Buzzard -- failed to find significant numbers of enemy troops.
There was tension between ministers, defence officials, military commanders and the media.
At one stage Hoon publicly defended Brigadier Roger Lane only hours before it was announced that he was being replaced as commander of the marines operations in Afghanistan. That was later described as a "routine" rotation.
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Marines in new Afghan battle
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Al Qaeda weapons cache destroyed
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April 11, 2002
UK combat troops fly in to Kabul
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