Image: Afghan de-miner
Ricardo Mazalan  /  AP
In this June 10 photo, a de-miner of the Halo Trust, a British charity that specialize in the removal of land mines, searches for mines in Bagram, north of Kabul, Afghanistan. Officials and experts fear that increased fighting and a drop in international funding could prevent Afghanistan from meeting the goal of clear the country of mines by 2013.
updated 7/5/2009 6:18:50 PM ET 2009-07-05T22:18:50

Insurgent attacks killed three British soldiers in the southern Afghanistan region where thousands of U.S. Marines pushed forward with the American military's biggest anti-Taliban offensive since the hard-line Islamist regime was toppled.

The British deaths came as gunmen in the east abducted 16 mine-clearing personnel working for the United Nations.

A soldier from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards died in an explosion while on a foot patrol near Gereshk in Helmand province Sunday, the Ministry of Defense said. In the same area Saturday, a rocket-propelled grenade killed one soldier and a roadside bomb killed another soldier, the British Defense Ministry said Sunday.

A total of 174 British personnel have died in Afghanistan since 2001.

The attacks underscore the dangers that the militarily superior foreign troops face in the Afghan countryside, known for its suspicion of foreigners.

Big U.S. offensive
The region is a known insurgent redoubt, and since Tuesday it has been the scene of the biggest American military offensive since 2001, when the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban-led government.

It wasn't clear if the British casualties had been involved in the Marine operation taking place farther south in Helmand. Taliban militants frequently use roadside bombs in their fight against Afghan and foreign forces in the country.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Helmand offensive is "the first significant one" since President Barack Obama has ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to try to reverse the militant gains.

"We've made some advances early. But I suspect it's going to be tough for a while," Mullen told CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

The admiral described the goal of Marines' push as not just driving out the Taliban from areas they control, but securing the area to allow the Afghan government to operation.

"We've got to move to a point where there's security ... so that the Afghan people can get goods and services consistently from their government," Mullen said.

Obama's administration expects the total number of U.S. forces there to reach 68,000 by year's end. That is double the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2008 but still half as many as are now in Iraq.

Mine-clearing operation criticized
In the country's east, meanwhile, gunmen kidnapped 16 Afghan mine clearers as they traveled between Paktia and Khost provinces on Saturday, said Paktia's police chief Azizullah Wardak.

While insurgents operate in the area, Wardak could not say who was responsible for the kidnapping. Similar incidents have happened twice before in Paktia but were resolved successfully, he said.

Wardak criticized the demining team — part of the U.N.'s effort to rid the country of decades of planted land mines — for going into the area without informing the police.

Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, and the increase in violence amid a thriving Taliban insurgency has slowed clearance work. Some 50 people are killed and maimed by mines every month.

Two-thirds of the country's mines have been cleared over the past two decades, with the rest expected to be removed by 2013. But experts fear Afghanistan can no longer meet that goal because of increased fighting and a drop in international funding.

Mine clearers have increasingly been targeted and killed by militants. Last year, insurgents shot and killed six mine clearers in one day and two the next, according to the United Nations Mine Action Center.

Militants often use the raw materials from the mines to make roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices.

Mines in Afghanistan are a legacy of decades of Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war. Tens of thousands of mines and unexploded ordinance still pepper the rugged country.

More on Afghanistan   |  NATO

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