(For more stories click [ID:nAFPAK]
By Peter Graff
KABUL, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Four U.S. and three British troops were killed in roadside bomb attacks in Afghanistan in the past 24 hours, officials said on Friday, as violence worsens ahead of an election in the eight-year-old war’s deadliest phase.
The deaths brought the toll for the first week of August to 18 Western troops, on pace to match the previous month, by far the deadliest of the war with 76 international fatalities.
More Western troops have died in Afghanistan since the beginning of March than in the entire period from 2001-2004.
The three British soldiers, from the Parachute Regiment, were killed in Helmand, the country’s most violent province, when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb and ambushed with gunfire on Thursday, the British Defence Ministry said.
The U.S. military said the four American service members were killed when their vehicle struck a homemade bomb. Initially a U.S. military spokesman said that incident also took place in Helmand, but spokeswoman Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker later said it took place in an area to the west.
There are now more than 100,000 Western troops in Afghanistan, including about 62,000 Americans — nearly double the U.S. strength at the start of the year as President Barack Obama has escalated the conflict in a bid to turn the tide.
Insurgents have stepped up attacks ahead of a presidential election on Aug. 20, which the Taliban have vowed to disrupt.
Homemade bombs are by far the insurgents’ most lethal weapons, with fighters often hiding nearby to ambush troops after they are struck.
Violence across Afghanistan has hit its worst level since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 and has intensified since thousands of newly arrived U.S. Marines launched Operation Strike of the Sword to seize Taliban-held areas in Helmand before the vote.
Britain’s 9,000s-strong contingent has also launched a large, simultaneous offensive in another part of Helmand, Operation Panther’s Claw, facing heavy losses as troops seize territory north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
Last month, the British death toll in Afghanistan overtook its toll in Iraq. The surge in casualties has turned the war into a political issue for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, accused by opponents of not sending enough troops or equipment.
Military commanders had warned of heavy casualties ahead of the Helmand offensives, part of Obama’s new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its allies and stabilise the country. (Additional by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)