Queen praises British troops


Britain's Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to the country's troops fighting in Afghanistan in her annual Christmas speech broadcast today, praising their work while expressing her sadness at the casualties.

The queen's message came at the end of a year in which 106 British soldiers were killed in the troubled Central Asian country. 2009 has been the bloodiest year for the British military since the war started nine years ago, and public support for the US-led campaign has waned as the death toll mounts in the fight against Taliban militants.

"I am sure that we have all been affected by events in Afghanistan and saddened by the casualties suffered by our forces serving there," the queen said in an address prerecorded in Buckingham Palace's White Drawing Room.

As she spoke, the television broadcast showed footage of a procession of hearses carrying the war dead moving slowly through streets lined with mourners in the small English town of Wootton Bassett. The scene has become a familiar one — it has been shown on national television every time a soldier's body was repatriated.

The 83-year-old monarch offered her sympathy to bereaved families and praised the effort of Commonwealth soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Aside from Britain, Commonwealth members Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore also have troops serving there.

"The debt of gratitude owed to these young men and women, and to their predecessors, is indeed profound," she said. "But, we can be proud of the positive contribution that our servicemen and women are making, in conjunction with our allies."

More than 240 British soldiers have been killed since operations began in Afghanistan in 2001. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has insisted that the war is crucial to Britain's national security, and he has pledged to boost troop numbers to about 10,000.

The annual broadcast is one of the only times the queen — Britain's oldest reigning monarch — publicly voices her own opinion without government consultation. Her first televised broadcast was in 1957.

For this year's address, the queen wore a bright turquoise silk wool dress accessorized with a three-stringed pearl necklace, and a pearl and diamond brooch.

A large part of her message was dedicated to highlighting the importance of the Commonwealth — an institution that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. The queen said the family of nations "remains a strong and practical force for good," and is a forum where its 54 member states cooperate to achieve practical solutions to problems.

The monarch also touched on the effects of the recession, echoing the somber focus on the economic crisis in her broadcast last year.

"2009 was a difficult year for many, in particular those facing the continuing effects of the economic downturn," she said.

Today, the queen and other members of the royal family attended their traditional Christmas Day church service on the queen's Sandringham House estate in Norfolk.

She was joined by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall and Princes William and Harry, as well as hundreds of onlookers hoping to see the royal family.