NZ SAS troops withdrawing from Afghanistan

02:04, Dec 22 2011
Willie Apiata
Willie Apiata received a Victoria Cross for his heroics in Afghanistan.

New Zealand's Special Air Service troops in Afghanistan will return home in March.

The withdrawal of the 35-strong squad from Kabul has been signalled for some time but was confirmed this morning by Prime Minister John Key.

Two SAS soldiers, Corporal Doug Grant and Lance Corporal Leon Smith, were killed in action this year.

Defence Force's Provincial Reconstruction Team will stay in Bamyan where it has been since 2003.

The team in Bamyan is due to end its deployment in 2014.

The prime minister thanked the SAS for its courage and professionalism.

“You made a difference. It’s time to come home.”

The intensity SAS's involvement in Afghanistan was made apparent after Corporal Willie Apiata received the Victoria Cross in 2007 for heroics in Afghanistan in 2004.

Cpl Apiata was in the headlines again in 2010 when photograhs were published of him and other SAS troops in the thick of a deadly gunfight in Afghanistan.

Publication of the photographs, taken moments after a battle that left three Taleban militants dead, prompted an international outcry and shocked the Victoria Cross recipient's family.

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Mr Key criticised media for publishing the images, which he said could lead the SAS to change its operations.

THE SAS

* Based in Auckland and formed in June 1955, the New Zealand Special Air Service Group is an elite unit set up with the motto "Who Dares Wins".

* After a gruelling selection process, applicants are trained in skills including close-quarter battle, parachuting, mountaineering and diving.

* The SAS has been deployed to countries including Malaya, Borneo, Indonesia, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

* On overseas missions they often operate in tough terrain for long periods of time. They also undertake counter-terrorism work.

* The secrecy surrounding the SAS has been blown by foreign media in recent months, with Prime Minister John Key being forced to discuss the operation this week after a New York Times journalist revealed that Kiwi soldiers were present during the gunfight with the Taleban. In October, Norway's defence chief told an Oslo newspaper the SAS had replaced a Norwegian special forces unit in Kabul. In 2002, the Labour government kept secret the original SAS deployment to Afghanistan but the White House website revealed they were there.

* In October, it was announced that 70 SAS troops would be sent back to Afghanistan in three deployments over 18 months.

* The elite soldiers were sent to Afghanistan three times between December 2001 and November 2005.

* In 2004, one SAS soldier was shot and another was hit by shrapnel during a battle in central Afghanistan. They were the six and seventh SAS troops to be injured in Afghanistan. It was the same year that Corporal Willie Apiata carried a critically injured comrade to safety, making him the 22nd New Zealander to receive the Victoria Cross for bravery while under enemy fire.

* Two SAS soldiers were also hurt in 2007 when one of their guns was fired accidentally.

* In July 2008, New Zealand-born Australian SAS soldier Sean Patrick McCarthy was killed in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan.