TODAY The Northern Echo salutes the 334 British forces personnel and Ministry of Defence civilians who have died while serving in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict in October 2001.

On the day that the men of 3 Rifles are honoured with a parade to receive the Freedom of the Borough of Darlington, our front page carries the names of all those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan serving their country.

Of these, 294 were killed as a result of hostile action. The other 40 died as a result of illness, non-combat injuries or accidents, or their cause of death has yet to be made official.

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Today, the first of three North-East ceremonies this week takes place in Darlington, when 3 Rifles – the battalion with its origins in the region – receives the Freedom of the Borough.

Tomorrow, soldiers from 3 Rifles will parade in Stockton, and on Friday in Sunderland.

Thousands of people are expected to take to the streets for the three parades to honour those involved.

3 Rifles, which was previously the Durham Light Infantry and recruits from the North-East and North Yorkshire, recently returned from a tour of Afghanistan.

Between October 2009 and April 2010, 30 members of 3 Rifles Battle Group lost their lives in the Sangin district of Helmand Province. Additionally, more than 100 soldiers were wounded.

Each of those who died are remembered in our eightpage supplement inside today’s paper.

James Ramsbotham, Honorary Colonel of D Company (Rifles) 5RRF and chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce, said last night: “Our soldiers have been operating in the most incredibly hazardous conditions, showing extreme bravery a long way from home.

“When newspapers like The Northern Echo and the communities they serve do something like this to show that they appreciate the sacrifice that has been made, it is an enormous boost to morale.”

Mr Ramsbotham served for 12 years with the Royal Green Jackets, who merged with the Durham Light Infantry to form The Rifles regiment.

Alasdair MacConachie OBE, Deputy Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, High Sheriff of the county and chairman of Darlington Partnership, served in the Army in many capacities.

He said: “Under very difficult circumstances, our troops have done a fantastic job.

“They are a great credit to the nation and particularly to us all locally. We are very mindful of the sadness involving our own families.

“It is great what we are doing to acknowledge and respect the fantastic job that these guys have done under very difficult circumstances.

“It is great that Darlington is doing this.”

Darlington Borough Council leader John Williams said: “The Freedom of the Borough is the highest civic distinction that can be conferred by the council.

“The event gives the people of Darlington a great opportunity to show their appreciation to our soldiers.

“I do hope that as many people as possible will come along and support the event.”

The Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI), a not-for-profit organisation based in Darlington, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, is supporting the parade.

Its chief executive, Reg Curtis, said: “It will be a proud moment for 3 Rifles to receive the Freedom of the Borough and NAAFI is proud to join alongside to show its support.”

■ HRH The Duke of Gloucester will be meeting friends and families of the soldiers.

However, due to other commitments, he is now unable to take part in the salute and inspection as reported in The Northern Echo yesterday.

Sedgefield Village Veterans Group will hold a memorial service on Sedgefield village green, County Durham, tomorrow, at 10.45am.

It will coincide with the repatriation later that day of Lance Corporal Joseph Mc- Farlane Pool, 26, of the Royal Scots Borderers, 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday.