KABUL — A bomb killed two British soldiers in southern Afghanistan, the military said today, raising Britain’s death toll to that in the Falklands war.
The grim milestone followed a warning by British Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth that more casualties were likely as U.S., British and Afghan troops prepare to launch an operation to clear Taliban insurgents from the town of Marjah in Helmand province.
Commanders have been careful not to release a start date for the offensive in Marjah, and Britain’s Defense Ministry said the two deaths were not connected to it.
British troops, however, have conducted preparatory air and ground operations to improve security near the main target of the planned offensive.
Two soldiers from the Royal Scots Borderers were killed Sunday in an explosion near the district of Sangin in Helmand, according to the ministry.
The total number of British military deaths in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001 is now 255 — equal the toll from the 73-day Falklands war in 1982 with Argentina for Britain’s South Atlantic colony.
“We have seen an intense, hard and bloody period in Afghanistan but … it is imperative that we hold our resolve,” Ainsworth said after the deaths were announced.
Britain is the largest contributor to NATO forces in Afghanistan after the United States, with about 9,500 troops in the country.
The mission had strong public support after the 2001 invasion, which came soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. But that backing has waned as casualties increase among the troops in volatile Helmand province.
Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak offered condolences and promised the British deaths would not be in vain.
“I look forward to the day when the Afghan security forces are able to take full responsibility for Afghanistan’s security,” he said in a statement. “But for now we continue to need the support of our international friends and partners, including the U.K.”
Sweden’s military, meanwhile, said a gunman who killed two Swedish officers and their local interpreter Sunday in northern Afghanistan was wearing a police uniform.
The shooting occurred while the Swedish patrol was visiting a police station near the village of Gurgi Tappeh. But Swedish military spokesman Gustaf Wallerfeldt said it was unclear if the gunman — who also was killed — was a policeman or an impostor.
Officials also said a district administrator in northwestern Afghanistan has been accused of militant links and corruption charges, the second senior Afghan official to be arrested in the past week.
The allegations against Aminullah, who like many Afghans only goes by one name, come amid fears of infiltration and pressure on President Hamid Karzai to crack down on corruption in the ranks.
Aminullah, the chief administrator in the Taliban-influenced district of Bala Murghab, was detained late Thursday, but officials did not disclose the news until after his interrogation.
He was accused of passing sensitive military and intelligence information to militants through a man who worked in his office, according to the chief prosecutor assigned to the case.
He also faced corruption charges for allegedly selling government property and cooking oil meant for poor people for personal gain, prosecutor Mohammad Nahim Naziry said.
Naziry said Aminullah’s brother also was the leader of a militant cell that attacked Afghan and foreign forces in Badghis province.
He said Aminullah was arrested by NATO-backed Afghan troops. The alliance said it was looking into the report.
Deputy provincial governor Abdul Ghani Sabery confirmed the corruption charges but said he had no information that Aminullah was helping militants.
A deputy provincial police chief in Kapisa province, Attaullah Wahab, was arrested Friday and accused of involvement in a roadside bomb network as well as corruption charges.
U.S.-led forces are increasing efforts to train Afghan police and soldiers and overcome concerns about infiltration by Taliban militants and corruption so the international force can eventually withdraw.
Heavy rain caused a minibus to crash on a mountain pass near Kandahar, killing 16 people Sunday night, provincial government spokesman Zalmay Ayubi said.
In northern Afghanistan, 171 more Afghan prisoners were returned from Tajikistan — completing a long-delayed transfer under an agreement between the two countries that lets convicted prisoners serve their terms in their homelands.
Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai said most of the inmates were suspected drug traffickers and were transferred to a prison in the border province of Kunduz until they could be sent home.
Afghanistan will return eight or nine Tajiks in its custody, Hashimzai said.
The central Asian nation is one of the main conduits for drugs out of neighboring Afghanistan. The U.N. has estimated up to 100 tons of heroin is smuggled annually across the 830-mile border between the two countries.