Photo: SAS troops in action

Last updated 17:39 21/01/2010

ARMED: SAS members in Kabul, Afghanistan. Victoria Cross winner Corporal Willie Apiata is on the right.

Audio: John Key's press conference on Corporal Willie Apiata

Prime Minister on Kabul SAS pictures

Willie Apiata
Waikato Times
DECORATED: Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata.

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Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata is one of the SAS members photographed in Afghanistan, Prime Minister John Key has confirmed.

Images emerged today of members of the New Zealand Special Air Service on patrol in Kabul shortly after they were involved in a battle in the centre of the Afghan capital.

Corporal Apiata became the first New Zealander since the Second World War to be awarded the Commonwealth's highest military award for his actions with the NZ SAS in Afghanistan.

Mr Key told reporters said Corporal Apiata had volunteered to return to Afghanistan.

"We gave Willie Apiata the choice about whether to return to Afghanistan or not and he made it quite clear he did want to return and he was one of the first to return."

The New York Times reported earlier this week that the New Zealand soldiers were the only Western troops caught up in an attack by Taleban insurgents.

Three suicide bombers struck Kabul on Monday night, followed by an attack by insurgents on the Presidential Palace. Prime Minister John Key confirmed Kiwi soldiers were involved but were "quite a way" from the action.

Thirteen people were killed in the brazen attack and at least 70 were injured.

Mr Key said it was unlikely Corporal Apiata would come back to New Zealand earlier than expected and although he had concerns, "I am sure he is not in any more danger than anybody else."

"He is a very brave New Zealand soldier and he wants to be on deployment," Mr Key told a press conference as he confirmed his presence in the photograph. 

But Mr Key said he was very disappointed the photo had been published unblurred.

"This is for the safety and lives of New Zealand's elite soldiers we are talking about," Mr Key told a hastily-called press conference in Auckland.

He would not take any action against the media who did, saying editors "have to live and die by their own actions."

"It puts at risk the lives of those individual soldiers because they can be recognised," he said.

Dominion Post editor Bernadette Courtney said the paper made the decision to publish Willie Apiata's photograph on because it was the first picture of the SAS troops in the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, after they responded to a Taleban attack. The image, taken by a freelance photographer, was available to New Zealand media and the AFP agency.

"It was the prime minister who confirmed Corporal Willie Apiata was one of those photographed in Afghanistan. We don't believe media have placed corporal Apiata or any of the other SAS members at any greater risk than they already are. It was well known that the NZ SAS was in Kabul."

New Zealand Herald assistant editor John Roughan defended the newspaper's decision to publish the images, in today's edition.

Mr Roughan said the newspaper stood by the decision because the troops were in a public place.

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"When you're on patrol in Kabul we don't think he's preserved from being photographed."

Mr Key also conceded that the Taleban and al Qaeda would have known the New Zealand SAS was in Kabul.

"There is no secret that New Zealand SAS were in Kabul because we made it clear because it was quite obvious with such a high profile destination that at some point if we didn't say they were there, somebody else would," Mr Key said.

"What we don't want them to know is the individual names and identities of the members of the SAS because of the nature of some of operations, it puts them at greater risk if they could be identified," Mr Key said.

- The Dominion Post

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