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British, US forces end operations in southwest Afghanistan

British and US troops have ended their operations in southwest Afghanistan, one of the most volatile regions in the country. The international coalition plans to withdraw all combat forces from the country by year's end.

British soldiers and US Marines lowered their national flags for the last time at the regional military command center in southwest Afghanistan on Sunday, officially transferring control to their Afghan protégés after 13 years of war.

The sprawling 6,500-acre base has been the center of coalition operations in Helmand Province, one of the bloodiest regions in Afghanistan. At the height of the war, the base housed some 40,000 personnel. Current estimates put the number of foreign troops there at 4,500.

British forces have been based at Camp Bastion and US Marines at Camp Leatherneck. Once the British-US withdrawal is complete, the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps will have its headquarters at the base, leaving virtually no foreign military presence in the region.

Helmand Province will be a major testing ground for Afghan security forces as the NATO-led military coalition prepares to withdraw all combat forces from the country by year's end. There has been fierce fighting in Helmand this year, with the Taliban attempting to take Sangin district from the Afghan army and police.

'Cautiously optimistic'

Despite doubts about the Afghan military's ability to fend off a resurgent Taliban, British Defence Ministry officials and military brass have expressed confidence in what they have accomplished in the region.

"The formal end of UK combat operations in Afghanistan marks the final step in a deliberate, responsible and measured handover to the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces)," said Brigadier Rob Thompson, the senior British officer in Helmand.

"They are more than ready to take on responsibility for security in Helmand," Thompson continued. "We can be extremely proud of the part we have played in building a capable, credible and confident Afghan force."

But the US head of Regional Command Center Southwest was more measured when speaking about the Afghan forces' capabilities.

"I'm cautiously optimistic they will be able to sustain themselves," said Brigadier General Daniel Yoo. "They've got to want it more than we do," he added.

slk/sb (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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