British Marines strapped themselves to helicopters in a daring dash into hostile territory to rescue a fallen comrade in Afghanistan, but it was too late to save his life, defense officials said Wednesday.
The effort to save Lance Cpl. Mathew Ford, 30, followed an attack Monday on a fort being used as an insurgent base in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. After falling back to regroup, the forces realized Ford had been left behind, according to an account by the Ministry of Defense.
The forces quickly drafted a plan to rescue Ford using Apaches, an attack helicopter which is so crammed with equipment that only two people can be seated. Two Marines were strapped on the side wings of each of two Apache helicopters. A third Apache provided cover.
"It was a leap into the unknown," said Lt. Col. Rory Bruce, the spokesman of the U.K. task force, which is the British force operating under NATO command. "This is believed to be the first time U.K. forces have ever tried this type of rescue mission."
While other units provided cover fire, one Apache landed inside the wall of the fort, and one outside. The four Marines got off the wings, together with some of the army air corps air crew, to provide cover. Ford's body was strapped on an Apache and taken away.
"With great sadness, they later found that their brother-in-arms had been killed in action," Bruce said.
British troops have faced fierce action since moving into southern Afghanistan last year for a mission some have charged was a disaster in the making. Critics of Prime Minister Tony Blair have accused politicians of failing to anticipate the strength of resurgent Taliban forces and of sending forces ill-equipped to do a job involving far more combat than anticipated.
Casualty figures have climbed: 46 military personnel have died in Afghanistan, though not all have been killed in combat, reports AP.
News of the rescue mission dominated British television newscasts Wednesday, leading to speculation that the forces who undertook the rescue mission should be awarded military honors. The Marines who undertook the mission have not been named.
"Clearly the prime minister would want to pay tribute to the bravery displayed, but it is too early to speculate about awarding of honors," said Blair's official spokesman, who speaks on condition of anonymity in line with government rules. "Everyone recognizes the bravery involved."