Prime Minister Tony Blair paid tribute today to the eight British commandos who died when their US helicopter crashed in Kuwait.

Speaking after a European Union summit in Brussels, Mr Blair said: "We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude and our thoughts and prayers are with their families."

Despite the setback, the Prime Minister said British operations in Iraq appeared to be going well and he confirmed that UK troops would be taking part in air and ground operations once more tonight.

Mr Blair said: "I would like to express my personal condolences and those of the Government to the servicemen who were killed in the helicopter crash overnight.

"These were brave men who in order to make us safer and more secure, knew the risks, faced the risks and had the courage to serve their country and the wider world."

Four American servicemen were also killed in the crash, which happened as the twin-rotor Sea Knight helicopter took part in deployment operations to the Al Faw peninsula in Iraq.

They were the first Allied casulaties of the land invasion.

Royal Marines spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ben Curry confirmed the eight UK personnel were part of the 3 Commando Brigade.

The deployment was part of a mission by allied troops to capture an oil pumping station and pipeline.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today expressed "my personal, and the British Government's condolences to the family and loved ones of the service personnel who perished overnight in the accident".

Mr Straw, who is in Brussels, said: "This is an illustration of the risks which our very brave young men and women face when going into active service."

Lt Col Curry said: "At 7pm GMT last night, combat units from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines in conjunction with naval special warfare teams from the United States Navy launched a heliborne assault in the Al Faw peninsula in southern Iraq.

"Regrettably, during the deployment phase, a US helicopter crashed. There were eight UK servicemen from 3 Commando Brigade and four US air crew on board.

"None survived the crash. There is no evidence that the helicopter crashed due to enemy fire. Our mission continues."

He finished by reciting the Royal Marine motto "Per Mare Per Terram" (By Sea, By Land).

The helicopter was assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The Sea Knight fleet has a history of mechanical problems.

Last year, all 291 Sea Knights in US service were grounded after a crack was discovered in a rotor blade in one of them.

An American military source said the names of the casualties were being withheld pending notification to the next of kin The eight British servicemen who died were from 3 Commando Brigade which has its headquarters at Stonehouse, Plymouth.

The brigade consists of Royal Marines from Taunton-based 40 Commando and Plymouth-based 42 Commando.

Its army component is the Plymouth-based 29 Commando Royal Artillery Regiment and 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers, based at Chivenor in Devon.

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