* Roadside blast in Afghanistan kills 200th British soldier
* Gordon Brown says UK troops help prevent al Qaeda attacks
* Defence minister: “Grim day; must stay focused on mission”
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By Peter Griffiths
LONDON, Aug 15 (Reuters) - The number of British military deaths in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 rose to 200 on Saturday when a soldier wounded in an explosion died in a British hospital, the Defence Ministry said.
The soldier, from the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, was wounded in a roadside blast on Thursday in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan and died in a hospital in central England.
“The death of the 200th British serviceman in Afghanistan is deeply tragic news,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a statement. “My thoughts are with the families and friends of all those soldiers who have died in Afghanistan.”
Brown, who is behind in opinion polls less than a year before parliamentary elections, has faced intense political pressure over Britain’s role in Afghanistan in recent months.
Critics accuse him of sending too few troops to fight the Taliban with insufficient equipment, such as helicopters and armoured patrol vehicles. The 200th death is likely to reignite the debate over Britain’s strategy in Afghanistan.
Brown has denied the claims that British soldiers lack resources and manpower and says their presence in Afghanistan is crucial in reducing the risk of attacks around the world.
“British troops are fighting bravely there to protect us,” he said. “The work of our troops...is vital to preventing al Qaeda once again using Afghanistan as a base for terrorist attacks against Britain and other countries.”
Violence has escalated in the country ahead of an election on Aug. 20.
A suicide car bomb killed seven people on Saturday in the heart of the Afghan capital’s most secure district. July was the deadliest month for British troops since 2001, with 21 UK soldiers killed.
The rising violence has eroded support for the war in Britain. A poll for the Times newspaper last month suggested that two-thirds of voters want Britain’s 9,000 troops to withdraw at once or within a year.
Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said it was a “grim day”, but added: “We must all stay focused on the mission, on why it matters and what is at stake.” (Editing by Andrew Dobbie)