Six UK soldiers have been killed in southern Afghanistan when their vehicle was hit by an explosion, taking the British military death toll to 404.
This incident is the biggest single loss of UK life at one time in Afghanistan since a Nimrod crash killed 14 service personnel in 2006. The number of British military deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 now stands at 404.
Prime Minister David Cameron said it was a “desperately sad day for our country”.
“It is a reminder of the huge price that we are paying for the work we are doing in Afghanistan and the sacrifice that our troops have made and continue to make,” he said.
“I do believe it is important work for our national security right here at home, but of course this work will increasingly be carried out by Afghan soldiers and we all want to see that transition take place.”
In a statement, Lt Col Gordon Mackenzie, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said the six soldiers were on a security patrol in a Warrior armored fighting vehicle when it was caught in an explosion just over the Helmand border in Kandahar province.
It is understood British forces believe the explosion was caused by either a roadside bomb laid by insurgents or a legacy mine, left over from the Soviet era.
The BBC’s Orla Guerin, in the Afghan capital Kabul, said there must have been a “massive explosion” to damage such a robust and heavily protected vehicle.
The area, she said, was sparsely populated and particularly unstable, according to Afghan officials, and insurgents were known to have planted roadside bombs there.
Meanwhile, the BBC’s defense correspondent, Caroline Wyatt, said the six soldiers had been in the country for less than a month, having flown out of the UK on Valentine’s Day.
She added that the ongoing operation to recover the bodies would have been slowed down as rescuers would have faced the risk of being injured themselves by further bombs.
News emerged earlier on Wednesday that the six were missing, presumed dead. It is understood the MoD has not formally identified the soldiers yet, but they are dead.
The last British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan was Senior Aircraftman Ryan Tomlin, of 2 Squadron, Royal Air Force Regiment, who died from gunshot wounds in Helmand on 13 February.
The UK is due to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, after 13 years of operations.
Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said the timetable for withdrawal remained on track despite this “cowardly attack”.
“This will not shake our resolve to see through the mission – I believe we owe that to all the brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives and put themselves at risk over the last few years,” he told the BBC.
Earlier, he said the UK and the Afghan National Security Forces were “on course to build an Afghanistan that can stand on its own two feet when UK combat operations cease”.
Chief of Defense Staff General Sir David Richards said he was “deeply saddened” by the news.
“This campaign has seen many personal tragedies and we owe it to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to recognize that their courage and skill is visible in the ever more capable Afghan Army and Police,” he added.
“Increasingly the Afghans themselves are taking the lead in providing security across Helmand. This transition is allowing Afghans to gain the confidence to reject the Taliban and live normal lives.
“The courage, fortitude and determination of those servicemen and women currently in Helmand are inspirational.
“They have not once wavered but, every day, mix the professionalism of which we are all so proud with deep commitment and determination.”
Shadow defense secretary Jim Murphy said it was a “terrible tragedy which will bring profound loss to six families and real hurt to the whole country”.
“The professionalism of UK service personnel is unmatched and their bravery is unending,” he added.
The Archbishop of York John Sentamu said his heart went out to those affected, particularly the five soldiers from the Yorkshire regiment.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to our brave soldiers who are the best in the world,” he said.