Cameron and Karzai at Chequers

BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday said he wanted to "further strengthen" relations between Britain and Afghanistan as he held discussions with President Hamid Karzai at Chequers.

Karzai was the first international leader to visit Cameron since he became prime minister on Tuesday.

The visit came a day after Afghanistan topped the agenda for talks between foreign secretary William Hague and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Washington.

Karzai stop­ped in the UK on the way back from a week of talks with the Obama administration ahead of a peace gathering ? or jirga ? to be held at the end of this month and the Kabul Conference on 20 July.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The prime minister was delighted to invite President Karzai to Chequers, the first formal visit by an international leader since the election.

"They discussed President Karzai's very successful visit to Washington, and the prospects for the peace jirga in Afghanistan at the end of May. Both the President and Prime Minister agreed that the relationship between Afghanistan and Britain should be further strengthened.

"The President and the Prime Minister expressed their admiration for the courage and skill of the British military in Afghanistan, and the sacrifices that British forces have made."

Hague said that the new Prime Minister had made Afghanistan "our top priority in foreign affairs" and would work with the US and international community to support Nato's strategy.

Hague told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This is a crucial year, this may be a decisive year in Afghanistan. It is vital that we continue to make the military progress, the security progress, on the ground."

Britain has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, most of them on the front line of the struggle with the Taliban in Helmand province, while Germany provides 4,000 personnel and France and Italy around 3,000 each, many in less dangerous positions.