Friday, 25 December 2009

British troops in Afghanistan have held their own Christmas celebrations as senior officers served up meals.

Deputy commander of Nato forces Lt Gen Nick Parker, ambassador Mark Sedwill and UK commander in Helmand Brig James Cowan toured bases in the country.

Turkey, ham, mince pies, Christmas pudding and presents were flown in to British forces in southern Afghanistan.

Troops have been given an extra hour of free phone calls home on top of their normal 30 minutes' weekly allowance.

'Amazing job'

However, Christmas Day saw many troops in Afghanistan carrying out their usual front-line patrols.

General Parker, Mr Sedwill and Brigadier Cowan began their tour by serving breakfast to soldiers from 1 Royal Anglian Regiment in Silab in Nad-e-Ali district.

They visited the Coldstream guards in Babaji, the Grenadier Guards in Shahzad, and the headquarters of 3 Rifles in Sangin where Padre Mark Christian held a short service.

They then saw A Company, 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, before Gen Parker went to the main British base at Camp Bastion.

Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield stressed the importance of visits by senior figures.

He said: "The message from Gen Parker to soldiers in places like Sangin and Nad-e-Ali was that even though they are sat up in Kabul looking at the whole of the country, these places are squarely in the centre of their minds because there is so much insurgent activity going on there and the fighting is so intense.

"The soldiers are doing an amazing job."

'Second family'

The BBC's Peter Greste, in Afghanistan, said the food was expected to be "a very welcome and festive departure from the usual rations".

Explaining the festive atmosphere, he said: "Everyone would much rather be at home, but they are with the people that are in a lot of respects essentially a second family.

"If they can't be with their blood relatives, they are with people who matter to them."

Some 120 bags of Christmas hampers, books and magazines have also been flown in.

Rifleman Dan Parrack, of 3 Rifles, told our correspondent his thoughts turned to loved ones over Christmas and he was looking forward to returning home.

The BBC put the soldier in touch with his mother Lisa Mitton, in High Wycombe, who said the chance to speak to her son and see him was "probably the best Christmas present" she could have asked for.

Difficult time

Servicemen and women will receive an additional 30 minutes free talk time from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and another 30 minutes from a communications company, giving them an extra hour to chat to family and friends between 22 December to 2 January.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said: "Free telephone minutes mean our forces can talk to their loved ones back home when they are in Afghanistan.

"I am delighted that we are able to boost the allowance even further over the Christmas and new year period."

Flight Lieutenant Andy Wilson, who manages the MoD's welfare communications, said: "Christmas can be a difficult time for the troops and their families and we hope that this goes some way in making this separation a little easier.

"This extra hour will allow families to share their news over the festive period, for mothers and fathers to have that extra bit of time to chat with their children and for the troops to feel as much a part of the celebrations as possible.

"Communication is vital to the morale of our personnel and the well-being of their loved ones at home, especially around this time of year."

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