Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan —
Armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and an automatic rifle, a rogue Afghan soldier attacked a group of British troops early Tuesday in southern Afghanistan, killing three and wounding four before escaping.
The Afghan soldier was assigned to a patrol base shared by NATO troops and the Afghan national army in the volatile southern province of Helmand, according to alliance spokespeople and Afghanistan's Defense Ministry.
Helmand is where American troops mounted a large-scale offensive this year to uproot Taliban insurgents from a stronghold in the town of Marja.
The motive for Tuesday's attack in the Nahr-e-Sarraj district remained unclear, but the incident could prove deeply embarrassing for the Afghan government and U.S. military leaders, who have stressed the importance of ratcheting up the training of Afghan security forces to gradually take on more responsibility for securing their own country.
British Defense Minister Liam Fox called the attack "a despicable and cowardly act." But he said the training of Afghan security forces would continue because it is "vital to the international security mission in Afghanistan, and today's events will not undermine the real progress we continue to make."
British army Lt. Gen. Nick Parker, deputy commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said the attack represented a "serious breach of trust" that Afghan security forces and commanders need to work quickly to mend.
"Our Afghan partners have to look very carefully at what happened," he said, "and they've got to reassure us that they are doing everything they can to minimize [the chance of] it happening again."
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Afghan Defense Ministry launched a joint investigation of the attack.
With Tuesday's incident, 317 British troops have died as a result of the war in Afghanistan since 2001, according to icasualties.org, an independent website that tracks deaths in the conflict.
Assaults by renegade Afghan soldiers or police officers on NATO troops have occurred before, but rarely. Tuesday's attack is likely to renew concerns about the infiltration of Taliban militants or sympathizers into the Afghan security forces.
In November, an Afghan police officer killed five British soldiers at a training base in Helmand. A month later in the northwestern province of Badghis, an Afghan soldier shot and killed an American soldier and injured two Italian troops.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan this week, border police seized more than 50 tons of ammonium nitrate, the main component in most of the Taliban-made roadside bombs that have become the leading killer of U.S. and other Western troops in the country.
The seizure from a 12-truck convoy took place Monday at a checkpoint in Paktia province, a mountainous region along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, according to NATO. Ten of the convoy's trucks carried legal fertilizer, but two contained ammonium nitrate, which is banned in Afghanistan. Later, another truck carrying ammonium nitrate was stopped.
Together, the three trucks were transporting 900 bags of ammonium nitrate, an amount that NATO said could have been used to make more than 2,100 roadside bombs.
A recent report by the Afghan Defense Ministry stated that ammonium nitrate is the key ingredient in 80% of the roadside bombs used by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Most of that ammonium nitrate is produced or imported by Pakistan and then smuggled into Afghanistan. Rampant corruption among Pakistani border guards, police and local government officials allows trucks carrying ammonium nitrate to freely cross into Afghanistan.
U.S. forces and their non-Afghan allies have suffered 772 combat-related deaths since the beginning of 2009, and 460 of them, or 3 of every 5, have been caused by roadside bombs, according to icasualties.org.
Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.