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UK troop deployment on hold

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A decision on whether to send thousands of British soldiers to Afghanistan remains on hold while the situation on the ground is assessed, the Ministry of Defence tells CNN.

An advance group of around 100 marines was flown in to Bagram airbase, about 10 miles north of Kabul, on Thursday. The troops are studying the security situation around the airport, and preparing the base for humanitarian airlifts.

A further 6,000 British troops remain on 48-hour stand-by to fly out to the country. Soldiers could have flown out on Sunday, if the Ministry of Defence had wanted to take advantage of the earliest possible deployment opportunity.

The troops have been assigned a stabilisation mission to help rebuild the war-torn country following several weeks of air strikes and fighting between Taliban and Northern Alliance opposition forces on the ground.

Ministry of Defence officials and Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan, Stephen Evans, are due to meet in the capital, Kabul, on Monday to discuss the situation.

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The troops are expected to help in the humanitarian effort, though British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday they could be used on the frontline.

An MoD spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, told CNN: "We do not want to put the troops at risk ... at the moment there is a risk. The situation is fluid. There is the issue of mines, and mountains that could be used for potential attack.

"Sunday, or Monday was the earliest possible time the troops could have gone, but that does not mean it was going to be then. I would not read into it a delay as such."

The Northern Alliance said at the weekend that an advance group of British soldiers flown in to Bagram Airport was unwelcome.

Engineer Arif, deputy chief of intelligence for the Northern Alliance told Reuters that 85 of the 100 group had "come without any prior co-ordination in the name of humanitarian aid led by the United Nations." He warned they would have to return, leaving just 15.

Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghanistan's deposed president, denied that alliance leaders had asked the British to leave.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon later said he was confident that British forces had an important role to play and would do the job "safely and securely." Hoon said a "number of options" were being considered by the government.

The defence secretary told the BBC: "This is an international coalition operation and we need to make absolutely sure everyone is agreed on the next stage forward."

He dismissed reports the Northern Alliance did not want British troops in the area, saying leaders had been "encouraging."

"There have been discussions both with the established leadership and some of the local leadership on the ground. They are being encouraging and very positive.

"There is a recognition that we can help provide technical expertise which will be of enormous assistance to the Northern Alliance as they begin the process we are involved in of rebuilding Afghanistan."

An advance group of French marines remained on stand-by at their base in Uzbekistan also, but a French military officer denied there was any delay.

The officer, Major Herve Fouilland who was speaking to Reuters by phone from Uzbekistan, was unable to give a date for deployment.

The marines are an advance party from an expected total of 300 troops that France is deploying in Afghanistan.

The French unit's initial task is to protect foreign teams that would clear mines around Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country.

A spokesman for the French ministry of defence in Paris said liaisons were ongoing with the Northern Alliance about the situation on the ground.


• 10 Downing Street

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