Killed soldiers 'don't have a lot of family'

Last updated 09:24 06/08/2012
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Prime Minister John Key says two soldiers killed in Afghanistan were in their 20s and neither had children.

Members of the Kiwi provincial reconstruction team were shot at, their armoured vehicles were fired at, and a further six soldiers were injured in the attack about 7pm on Saturday, NZ time.

The two dead men are expected to be named about 1pm today.

The Defence Force is phoning the families of all 143 members of the PRT. Mr Key this morning said he would contact their families.

‘‘They don't have a lot of family. Neither of them are married. One has a partner, but the partner's also part of the New Zealand Defence Force and actually is overseas.

"The other guy doesn't have a lot of family at all in New Zealand,’’ he told Radio Live.

United States media reported last night that a Taleban spokesman had claimed responsibility for the Afghan and New Zealand deaths, saying it was part of a spring offensive.

The bloody battle happened two years to the day after Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell was killed when his patrol was attacked in the same area.

The deaths bring the total number of New Zealanders who have died in Afghanistan to seven, but Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that the tragedy would not alter next year's withdrawal date.

The Defence Force is expected to make public today the names of the two soldiers killed in the ambush.

Of those who were injured, three remained in a serious condition last night and were likely to be brought home as soon as possible. The other three suffered moderate injuries. All six had spoken to their families.

Yesterday, the Defence Force provided details of the fiery battle that claimed the soldiers' lives. It confirmed they had been drawn from the 2nd First Battalion, based at Burnham near Christchurch, and had been in Afghanistan since April. They were due home in October.

The firefight in the northeast of Bamiyan province also claimed the lives of two members of the Afghan special police and injured 11 others.

The chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, said the troops had been called in to help local forces after the attempted arrest of an insurgent near Do Abe went wrong. The New Zealanders moved to secure the area and came under fire from a separate group of insurgents.

Anti-tank weapons were used against the New Zealanders' armoured vehicles and the group fired on the Kiwis with machineguns and rifles.

“Whether those Afghan forces were waiting there for us or whether they were there to cover and protect the withdrawal for their own forces out there, we don't know,” General Jones said.

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Mark O'Donnell, of Feilding, whose son Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell was killed in action two years ago, told One News last night: "The third and the fourth of August are going to be pretty sad times for a number of families now in New Zealand.

"To have two deaths and six wounded, I mean our family are really feeling quite hollow. Our hearts just go out to the eight families involved, particularly the families of those who have been killed."

General Jones said the Defence Force would conduct a battle debriefing to find out what went wrong. “I remain confident the training of our guys remains top quality and that the response to the incident was very good."

Mr Key said it was with great sadness that he learned of the deaths - the highest toll from a single battle since New Zealand first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2003.

"It's a day of great tragedy where we lose two of our soldiers and obviously they join the other five before them," he said. "For New Zealand, a small country, losing seven of our men is an enormous price to pay."

Labour leader David Shearer, who worked in Afghanistan during his former career as a humanitarian worker, said the area of Bamiyan province where the two soldiers were killed was "troublesome".

"Anywhere in Afghanistan there are these underlying tensions, there are groups that want to destabilise and undermine the efforts that we have made."

The incident comes as fears grow internationally about the stability of Afghanistan. Britain's Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that British commanders believe the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the army and police, are not yet fully capable of taking over from international forces.

Under current plans, the ANSF are supposed to take over responsibility for security by the middle of next year and all International Security and Assistance Force troops will be withdrawn from combat operations by the end of 2014.

But British Prime Minister David Cameron has been told the current plan to hand control of the country's security to the Afghan forces next year may need to be “diluted”.

RISKS GROWING

Bamiyan is one of the quieter provinces in Afghanistan, and the latest incident is the deadliest of New Zealand's nine-year deployment there.

Typically, the greatest challenges faced by the troops of New Zealand's Provincial Reconstruction Team are the climate and appalling roads. But there have been signs of a growing military threat, particularly in the northeast, where the latest battle took place.

The 140-strong PRT is on its 20th rotation in Bamiyan, patrolling the rugged central highlands, maintaining contact with locals and watching for insurgent activity.

When the force was first sent to the impoverished province in 2003, troops patrolled in Toyota utes, but the growing risk has prompted the Defence Force to provide them with armoured Humvees and light armoured vehicles.

Most of the present contingent are drawn from the Christchurch-based 2nd First Battalion and led by Lieutenant Colonel Pete Hall. They began their rotation in April and are expected to return home in October.

The PRT was to have stayed in Afghanistan until September 2014 but Foreign Minister Murray McCully said in May that the team would leave the area late next year. This is in line with United States and Nato plans to run down their commitments and hand over security to Afghan forces.

The first reconstruction team was sent to Afghanistan, along with the SAS, as a gesture of support to the United States and Nato after the New Zealand Government refused to support the invasion of Iraq.

New Zealand's role in Afghanistan has played a crucial part in helping to restore military and political links with the US after the Anzus Treaty split of 1985.

 

- The Dominion Post

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