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A scene from BAFTA-sweeping film The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

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Iraq-war drama The Hurt Locker swept 3-D blockbuster Avatar aside at the BAFTA British film awards on Sunday, picking up best film and best director among its six prizes, and laying down a marker for the Oscars.

The movies, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and ex-husband James Cameron, respectively, were both nominated for eight awards at the BAFTAs. They also lead the field heading into next month's Academy Awards with nine nominations apiece.

Bigelow became the first woman to win the best director BAFTA, and said she hoped she would not be the last.

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"Women's struggle for equity is a constant struggle, so if this can be a beacon of light, then wonderful," she told reporters backstage after receiving her BAFTA in the gilded splendour of London's Royal Opera House.

Cameron was in the audience, and Avatar, the biggest box-office hit in history, won just two awards: production design and special visual effects. Bigelow played down talk of rivalry between her and her ex.

"It's been a real honour," she said. "Specifically with Jim, we're very good friends. I think we're proud of each other and I think that's there for a long time."

The Hurt Locker, whose budget - and box office - was dwarfed by that of Avatar, follows a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq, and captures the tension and danger as they seek to defuse bombs in cars, under dirt and strapped to innocent civilians.

"I think we all sensed an amazing responsibility to honour the people in the film and honour a scriptwriter who risked his life to capture the tragedy and chaos of war," Bigelow said.

"I would like to dedicate this to never abandoning the need to find a resolution for peace."

Scriptwriter Mark Boal also picked up the award for best original screenplay.

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The BAFTAs tend to lean toward British talent more than the Oscars, and they are a far-from-perfect barometer of what happens at the Academy Awards.

But the scale of The Hurt Locker's success will be noted by the industry as well as the media, which has built both the BAFTAs and Oscars into a Bigelow-versus-Cameron duel.

Colin Firth ( A Single Man) and Carey Mulligan ( An Education) made it a home double in the main acting categories.

Best supporting actress went to Mo'Nique for the gritty U.S. production Precious and Christoph Waltz won the best-supporting-actor prize for his chilling turn as a Nazi in Quentin Tarantino's irreverent and bloody Inglourious Basterds.

Tarantino was among the stars who turned up for the awards, along with Kate Winslet, Twilight co-stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, and Prince William, second in line to the throne.

Stewart won the Orange Rising Star prize, decided by the British public, and prison thriller A Prophet topped the foreign-film category.

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The prince was named as the new BAFTA president, taking over from British director Richard Attenborough.

Veteran British actress Vanessa Redgrave accepted an Academy Fellowship in honour of a career spanning six decades and followed in the footsteps of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and Elizabeth Taylor.

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