updated 8/1/2006 10:39:24 AM ET 2006-08-01T14:39:24

Taliban militants killed three British soldiers in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday in the first fatalities sustained by NATO forces since taking command of the insurgency-wracked region a day earlier, officials said.

A fourth soldier was seriously wounded in the ambush, the deadliest single incident for British forces since first deploying to Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the British Ministry of Defense in London.

The militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns on at least two vehicles, damaging one and destroying another, in volatile Helmand province, where nearly 4,000 British troops are deployed, a NATO statement said.

British force commander Brig. Ed Butler said the soldiers had been deployed in a “pre-planned operation against Taliban based on intelligence, and that operation is still going on,” supported by Apache attack helicopters and Harrier fighter jets.

He said “several” Taliban had been killed. The NATO statement said attack helicopters had killed at least one insurgent.

NATO takes charge
The fighting comes a day after NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, led by a British general, took command of the south from the U.S.-led coalition, with a mission to stabilize a region wracked by a Taliban-led insurgency and the drugs trade.

The mission is considered the toughest in the Western alliance’s 57-year history. It coincides with the deadliest upsurge in fighting in Afghanistan since late 2001 that has killed more than 800 people—mostly militants—since May.

The British military initially reported that two soldiers had been killed and a third unaccounted for but presumed dead after Tuesday’s attack that happened in the north of Helmand, Afghanistan’s biggest province.

Lt. Col. Kevin Stratford Wright, spokesman for the British Helmand Task Force, later confirmed that the body of the missing soldier had been found by troops searching the barren desert region for him. A fourth was seriously wounded and evacuated to a military hospital in Helmand.

“Within the British headquarters we stood in a minute of silence as a mark of respect of those who have died,” Wright said.  “But we won’t just sit here and let the Taliban have the initiative. Wherever they are, they are not going to be safe from us.”

Afghan officials reported heavy fighting in Helmand’s Musa Qala district started early Tuesday, but had no further information.

British military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to media, said there had been several firefights. They did not disclose the location of the clashes.

At least nine British soldiers have now been killed since they started deploying to Helmand in March as part of an 8,000-strong NATO-led force in the south, also including Canadian, Dutch and American troops. Sixteen British troops have died in all since 2001.

British Defense Secretary Des Browne said those responsible for Tuesday’s attack opposed peace and security in Afghanistan.

“We cannot allow them to succeed, and we remain committed to seeing through our part in this vital international effort,” he said.

Al-Qaida suspects arrested
Meanwhile, Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces early Tuesday arrested four suspected al-Qaida operatives in eastern Khost province.

The four did not resist arrest in the raid launched near Sewakay village, a coalition statement said. No details were given on the suspects’ nationalities. The coalition accused them of coordinating the smuggling of explosives into Afghanistan and planning attacks against Afghan and coalition forces in the country’s east.

With NATO taking charge in the south, the coalition, first deployed nearly five years ago to unseat the Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden, now is focusing on eastern Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and the Taliban are active.

In Helmand, police arrested two Afghans suspected of al-Qaida links in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah on Monday night, said Helmand police chief Ghulam Nabi Malakhel. Documents seized from the men showed they were associated with the terror group, he said without elaborating.

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