Highlander Scott McLaren was 'brave and dedicated soldier who died serving his country'

DAVID Cameron led tributes yesterday to the Scottish soldier believed to have been shot and killed by the Taleban, as the military police investigated the exact circumstances of his death.

The Prime Minister praised the "bravery and dedication" of Highlander Scott McLaren, 20, who was snatched by insurgents after he took the unusual step of leaving a base in southern Afghanistan on his own.

The Ministry of Defence said no more details of the young soldier's death would be released until the completion of the investigation currently being carried out.

Rifleman McLaren of The Highlanders, 4th Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland (4 Scots), is thought to have run into a senior Taleban commander then been shot dead by one of the insurgent's bodyguards.

At Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons yesterday, Mr Cameron, who had recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, said: "This week, I witnessed at first hand the sacrifices of our soldiers and I pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of this particular soldier who was lost in such tragic circumstances.

"Our thoughts are rightly with his family and friends at this very sad time.

"We pay tribute to him and all who, like him, serve our country so magnificently in Afghanistan and elsewhere."

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Mr Cameron's words came as he confirmed that a further 500 British troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan next year.

The leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, joined the Prime Minister in marking his appreciation of the sacrifice made by Highlander McLaren, from Sighthill, Edinburgh.

"He was a young man, who was serving our country and he died in the most horrific circumstances," Mr Miliband said.

"I am sure that the thoughts of the whole house are with his family and friends."

First Minister Alex Salmond said: "This is a heartbreaking loss for Scott McLaren's family and friends, and I extend my deepest condolences.

"He died in the service of his country, and hopefully that can be of some comfort to his loved ones as they mourn such a young life lost."

There have been conflicting reports about how Highlander McLaren died. The soldier finished duty at his Salaang checkpoint near the village of Kopak in Helmand province.

His body was found three miles from the checkpoint after a massive army search operation.

Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a local elder, said Highlander McLaren was shot dead in Kopak after he left the base with an unknown number of Afghan soldiers and walked towards the village.

His group came face-to-face with a Taleban commander and three of his guards. Mr Helmandwal claimed the bodyguards shot him dead then took his body to Khazanadar to show other Taleban the body.The corpse of the Highlander was kicked and ill-treated before being thrown into a nearby canal.

Another account was given by General Sayed Malook, the commander of Afghan forces in Helmand, who said he understood that the soldier went off with a number of Afghan soldiers for a swim in the canal and later drowned. Gen Malook said that the abuse to the body was carried out by local Taleban who dragged Highlander McLaren's corpse out of the canal.

That version of events has been treated with deep scepticism by Nato officials. UK defence sources have indicated that the soldier died from gunshot wounds, including one to the back of the head that suggested he had been executed.

A talented athlete, who was nicknamed "F1" by his comrades, Highlander McLaren had been in the army since 2009.

His parents James and Ann released a statement saying how proud they were of their "dear son".

His colleagues have also spoken of how much they will miss Highlander McLaren, the first British soldier to have gone missing and then been killed in Afghanistan.

In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said the withdrawal of 500 troops meant that the British force in Afghanistan would be reduced to 9,000 by the end of the year.

He said the UK remained committed to the full hand- over of responsibility for security throughout the country to the Afghan authorities by the end of 2014.

The Prime Minister stressed his commitment to end the UK's combat role in the conflict by 2015, but said force levels would be reduced from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012.

The government had already announced a reduction of 426 troops by February 2012.

Labour leader Mr Miliband welcomed the plans to maintain force levels above 9,000 for "this fighting season and the next".

The UK had been under pressure to follow the example of US president Barack Obama, who announced last month that 10,000 troops deployed as part of the so-called "surge" strategy would be coming home by the end of this year, and another 23,000 next year.

Mr Cameron told MPs: "At the time of the US surge, the UK increased its core force levels by an extra 500.

"For our part, I have already said we will withdraw 426 UK military personnel by February 2012.

"And today I can announce that the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by a further 500 from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012."