Image: Casket procession
Matt Dunham  /  AP
People react as the coffins of six British soldiers are driven through Wootton Bassett, England, on Tuesday.
updated 11/10/2009 12:00:48 PM ET 2009-11-10T17:00:48

Hundreds gathered in this small English market town Tuesday to pay tribute to six soldiers killed in Afghanistan — five of whom were shot to death by an Afghan police officer trained by allied forces.

The deaths have been branded as a betrayal in Britain — British and allied forces have spent years training Afghan forces and securing villages vulnerable to Taliban attacks — but they have also added to waning support for the U.S.-led mission.

Some 232 British troops have died since 2001, questions have erupted over a lack of equipment for the troops and several military officers have resigned over the mission's strategy.

Other governments with troops in Afghanistan, including the United States, have faced similar discontent.

"I don't support the war anymore," said Anne Saville, a 54-year-old surveyor from Bolton, in northern England. "There seems to be no end in sight and no justification for the troops to be out there."

President Barack Obama is due to decide whether more U.S. troops will be deployed — a decision that could affect Britain's 9,000 troops.

Any decision to send more troops could backfire for the British Labour-led government, which lost significant support from voters in local and general elections when it joined the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.

Most Brits want troops out
A poll last week showed that 64 percent of Britons — up from 58 percent in a similar poll over the summer — think the war is unwinnable. And 63 percent of the 1,009 people across Britain who were questioned wanted the troops withdrawn from Afghanistan. The poll had an error margin of three percentage points.

British media coverage of troop deaths in Afghanistan has been constant, and Wootton Bassett — about 85 miles west of London — has become a somber reminder of the treacherous mission.

The flag-draped coffins arrive at a nearby Royal Air Force base and then travel through the town's streets lined with grieving family members, friends and veteran's groups. The numbers lining the streets have swollen from dozens to thousands in the past two years.

For the six bodies returning Tuesday, five of the soldiers were killed a week ago when an Afghan police officer trained by allied forces opened fire at a checkpoint in the volatile southern province of Helmand. The gunman escaped.

A sixth soldier died in an explosion Thursday.

The slain men ranged in age from 22 to 40.

National attention
The repatriations — usually broadcast live on television — has taken on national significance in this small country with a voracious national media.

This year, the American military removed its 18-year ban on media covering the return of U.S. service members killed in action if family permission was provided.

"The British way of mourning war dead is quite formal," said Robert Lee, spokesman for the Royal British Legion.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was criticized this week over a hastily written condolence letter to a grieving mother, said the Afghan mission is vital to keeping Britons safe from terrorists.

Brown, whose vision has suffered from a childhood rugby accident, apologized again Tuesday for misspelling both the name of the mother and her son who was killed in Afghanistan.

"Each life lost is an irreplaceable loss from a family," Brown said. "It reminds us of the stark human cost of armed conflict in the service of our society."

Brown said that by mid-2010, British forces will begin handing over control of some districts of the southern Helmand province to Afghan military leaders and local lawmakers — a tactic aimed at preparing the way for an eventual withdrawal from the province.

Brown has warned the Afghan government it needs to clean up corruption to keep British support.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Troop decision looms over Fort Hood memorial

  1. Closed captioning of: Troop decision looms over Fort Hood memorial

    >> newsroom. pete, thanks.

    >>> so as we saw the president spoke at ft. hood today, and then flew back to the white house , where a war council meeting awaits him tomorrow. it's on afghanistan . he's nearing that big decision about sending more troops. our white house correspondent savannah guthrie is with us from the white house tonight. and, savannah, where does the process stand?

    >> reporter: well, brian, this is the eighth and perhaps the last meeting of the president's full national security team on afghanistan in the situation room. the president now has four options on the table. we've learned that he received them formally in writing today, and all of those options will increase troops. so the only question now is, by how many? we are told that on the low end , there's an option of 10,000 to 15,000 additional troops. on the high end , the full amount that mccrystal wanted, which is 40,000 to 44,000 to afghanistan . we also learned that there's a middle option, supported by defense secretary robert gates that would give mccrystal, the commanding general in afghanistan , most of the troops he's requested but not all of them. now, this decision is still weeks away. we're looking at probably after the president's asia trip. he leaves tomorrow. maybe the end of thanksgiving week or the week after, and the calendar is certainly an issue here. mccrystal knows that the military would need at least a year to get all of those troops in, and he's also said that failure to get the initiative in the next year would perhaps mean losing this battle to the taliban and al qaeda . brian?

    >> all right. the update from the white house tonight. savannah guthrie . savannah, thanks.

    >>> "the new york times" is


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