Six British soldiers have been killed after an explosion hit their armoured vehicle in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence has said.
The group – which included five soldiers from the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment and one from the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment – was on a mounted patrol.
The Warrior is among the best protected of all the vehicles on offer to British soldiers and is fitted with heavy armour.
Read Sky’s Mark Stone’s profile of the British Army’s Warrior vehicle
The MoD has said the soldiers are missing, presumed dead, while the recovery operation continues.
The soldiers’ families have been informed.
Sky’s defence and security editor Sam Kiley said this is the first time a Warrior has been destroyed in Afghanistan.
It is understood there were two of the huge, heavily armoured vehicles travelling in a convoy on Highway One but the second Warrior was not hit by the blast.
If the servicemen are confirmed dead, it would become the biggest single loss of British life in one incident since the RAF Nimrod crash which killed 14 service personnel in 2006.
It would also involve the largest number of fatal casualties in a land attack.
Speaking from Downing Street, Prime Minister David Cameron said it was a “desperately sad day for our country”.
“It is a reminder of the huge price that we are paying for the work we are doing in Afghanistan and the sacrifice that our troops have made and continue to make.
“I do believe it’s important work for our national security right here at home but of course this work will increasingly be carried out by Afghan soldiers and we all want to see that transition take place.”
The Warrior is a huge, heavily armoured vehicle
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the incident “brings home to us the dangers that are faced on a daily basis by the men and women of our Armed Forces deployed in Afghanistan”.
“I utterly condemn those responsible for this incident who will ultimately fail to derail a mission that is protecting our national security at home and making real progress in Helmand Province – a testament to the bravery, commitment and professionalism of our Armed Forces,” he added.
Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards said: “I was deeply saddened by the news of this incident and that six soldiers are believed to have lost their lives doing what is a dangerous but important job.
“My thoughts and prayers at this difficult time are with the families of those affected by this tragic event.”
Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: “This tragedy underlines the daily dangers our forces face and the importance of their role in stabilising a nation that can never again become an incubator for terrorism.
“In our sadness it is still important to remember that this painful mission is in our country’s national interest.”
At the Yorkshire Regiment headquarters in York the flag flew at half mast. A spokesman for the regiment said it had been a “tough morning” as families of the soldiers had been told the news.
The battalion, also known as The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment or The Dukes, is mainly based at Battlesbury Barracks in Warminster, Wiltshire, had only been in Afghanistan for a number of weeks.
Its troops were due to return home later this month.
A statement from the Archbishop of York said: “We hold daily prayers for this regiment in our chapel at Bishopthorpe – indeed earlier this morning we were praying for all those serving in the regiment.
“My heart goes out to those affected, we will continue to pray for you. We owe a debt of gratitude to our brave soldiers who are the best in the world.”
Kiley said the “critical issue” to be examined now is the nature of the bomb – whether it was a huge explosive, an unexploded Nato bomb being recycled by the Taliban, a homemade explosive or most worryingly, a shaped charge, which could indicate Iranian involvement.
Sky reporter Mark Stone said the recovery operation may take some time because of bad weather in the area and the fact that the Warrior was completely destroyed.
CBS correspondent Mandy Clark, in the capital, Kabul, told Sky News the incident could be the start of a “spring offensive” by the Taliban.
January and February are very cold months in Afghanistan and attacks on foreign forces typically decrease at the beginning of the year.
The Times newspaper correspondent Jerome Starkey, who lived in Kabul for five years, told Sky News the explosion proves the Taliban are still a “potent force”.
Mr Starkey said he has seen very little evidence that the group is a “spent force” and believes it could just be waiting for Nato troops to leave the country so it can then “topple” the Afghan government.
The incident would take the total number of British forces personnel or MoD civilians who have died while serving in Afghanistan to more than 400 since the start of operations in October 2001.