LONDON - Britain faces a "ticking timebomb" of mental illness and suicide among young Army veterans who return from hand-to-hand combat in Afghanistan, the Conservative Party has warned.

A lack of mental health care for veterans, combined with the strains of fighting the Taleban, will mean many survivors of the conflict pay a heavy price in psychological problems and self-harm, according to party leader David Cameron and the shadow defence secretary Liam Fox.

Mental health experts joined the politicians in warning that not enough was being done to care for returning members of the armed forces.

Research suggests that veterans aged 18 to 23 are up to three times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts. Setting out plans to boost mental health care for returning troops, Fox and Cameron argued that more veterans of the Falklands campaign and the first Gulf War killed themselves after quitting the forces than died in action.

An estimated 264 Falklands veterans have committed suicide since the conflict ended, compared with 255 soldiers killed in action, according to an ex-servicemen's organisation.

During the 1991 Gulf War, 24 British soldiers died but the Ministry of Defence said last year that 169 veterans of the conflict had died from "intentional self-harm" or in circumstances that led to open verdicts at inquests.

Fox said: "The suicide figures for past conflicts are deeply concerning. I worry that with the intensity of current operations in Afghanistan we are building up a timebomb of mental health problems."

David Hill, director of operations for the charity Combat Stress, said it took an average of 14 years for veterans to ask for help with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hill said: "Servicemen and women are exposed to stresses that most people won't be exposed to in their lives. In Afghanistan, they are exposed to them quite early in their careers. There is a general lack of understanding about how intense these stresses can be."

- INDEPENDENT