KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Suspected Taliban militants used rocket-propelled grenades to ambush a British patrol yesterday, killing three soldiers just one day after NATO took command of southern Afghanistan.
The attack in Helmand province seriously wounded a fourth soldier and marked the deadliest single incident suffered by British forces since they deployed here in late 2001 to help topple the Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden.
The attack followed NATO's assumption of control Monday of military operations in southern Afghanistan from the US-led coalition. It also underscored the dangers faced by the 8,000-member multinational contingent to try to crush the bloodiest spate of Taliban-led violence in nearly five years.
The British troops were taking part in a ``preplanned operation against Taliban" when they came under attack by militants firing rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, said Brigadier Ed Butler, the British force commander.
Afghan officials reported heavy fighting in Helmand's Musa Qala district started early yesterday.
One vehicle, apparently carrying the soldiers who were killed, was destroyed and another damaged in the ambush. Harrier fighter jets and
``Within the British headquarters we stood in a minute of silence as a mark of respect of those who have died," said Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Stratford Wright, spokesman for the British task force in Helmand. ``But we won't just sit here and let the Taliban have the initiative. Wherever they are, they are not going to be safe from us."
General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the British Army, said he believed ``progress" could be made in Afghanistan despite the incessant violence.
``I think an increased NATO security presence in the south was bound to cause a reaction by the Taliban," Jackson told BBC World Service. ``It has and there has been some sharp fighting and that may continue. So be it -- that's part of getting the job done."
At least nine British soldiers have been killed since they started deploying to Helmand in March as part of a NATO-led force that also includes Canadian, Dutch, and American troops. Sixteen British troops have died in all in Afghanistan since 2001.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force is led by a British general and aims to stabilize a region wracked by a Taliban-led insurgency and the drugs trade.
The mission, considered the toughest in NATO's 57-year history, coincides with a surge in fighting that has killed more than 800 people -- mostly militants -- since May.
British Defense Secretary Des Browne said those responsible for yesterday's attack oppose peace and security in Afghanistan.
``We cannot allow them to succeed, and we remain committed to seeing through our part in this vital international effort," he said.
Meanwhile, Afghan and US-led coalition forces arrested four suspected Al Qaeda operatives yesterday near eastern Khost province's Sewakay village, a coalition statement said. No details were given on the suspects' nationalities.
Police in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, arrested two Afghans suspected of links to Al Qaeda, officials said.