Kiwi soldier killed in Afghanistan

DANYA LEVY AND VERNON SMALL
Last updated 23:06 28/09/2011
Leon Smith
NZDF
DEATH CONFIRMED: Leon Smith was killed in an operation near Kabul.
Lieutenant General Rhys Jones with Prime Minister John Key
CHRIS SKELTON Zoom
Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, with Prime Minister John Key, announces the death of a New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan.

Second New Zealand SAS soldier killed

SlideshowKiwi soldier killed in Wardak Province, Afghanistan


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The New Zealand SAS solider killed in Afghanistan has been named as Leon Smith, the Defence Force has confirmed.

Smith was shot dead during an operation in the Wardak province, near Kabul, this morning (NZ time).

He is the second SAS soldier killed in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister John Key, who was joined by Defence Minister Wayne Mapp and Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, expressed his condolences to the man's family and the entire Defence Force.

"I deeply regret the loss of our soldiers but I don't regret the commitment we've made to Afghanistan," he said.

A Defence source said the attack in Wardak has just concluded.

The Defence Force was working on a post-activity report and would reveal further information on the incident tomorrow.

"He was evacuated by helicopter to a base where the top military neurosurgeon in Afghanistan and his team were operating from. Unfortunately he died on the operating table," Jones said.

Jones said the Special Air Service (SAS) were reacting to information about a team preparing to launch an attack on Kabul.

The operation began at 9am (NZ time) and one child and a ''fighting-aged'' male were also injured.

It had involved 15 SAS and 50 Afghan soldiers from the crisis response unit, which the SAS mentor and advise.

"It was a warranted operation from the ministry of the interior, the police organisation of Afghanistan, with an arrest and a search warrant to deter and disrupt this team," Jones said.

He said the insurgents had been "IED facilitators" planning an attack in Kabul. IEDs are improvised explosive devices, such as roadside bombs and car bombs.

"As the cordon was being put in place to isolate that area so that the arrest and search could be conducted, it was detected and the people in that compound opened fire with rifle fire and there were also some explosions. The exact origin has not been confirmed yet.

"Our soldier was killed in that exchange of rifle fire in the early part of the contact."

Operations happened every week and 95 per cent of the time an arrest could be made without incident.

"The fact that this group fought back indicates they had the intention to fight it out in Kabul and were ready to inflict damage and death on their target," Jones said.

He said the insurgents deliberately based themselves in houses among the population "so that there is those collateral injuries".

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Jones said the enemy were "well trained and professional" and their skill or planning should not be underestimated.

Key said the SAS faced volatile and dangerous conditions in order to help the people of Afghanistan.

''They are brave, resourceful and resilient and they are making a valuable contribution in Afghanistan.

''He paid the highest price for his service to this country and we will mourn his death.''

The dead soldier was not VC recipient Willie Apiata.

United Future leader Peter Dunne said the soldier's death showed it may be time to bring New Zealand troops home.

He said he believed politicians were aware of the consequences of sending soldiers to war.

"You can't make a decision to deploy troops in a situation like this based on a fear of what might happen.

"But you have to be aware of the risks involved and the fact there are going to be casualties and in some cases people will pay a very high price."

But Key said the soldier's death did not alter New Zealand's commitment to helping Afghanistan, and it continued to be the Government's intention to keep the SAS in the war-torn country until March 2012 as planned.

Mapp said the tempo of the insurgency in and around Kabul had increased over recent months.

About 35 SAS troops were in Kabul to mentor the Afghan police Crisis Response Unit.

Mapp said whenever the troops were sent out with the unit, whether they were directly involved in an operations or in support, there was a risk of New Zealand casualties.

''Whether they are in the cordon or supporting the assault, they are in range of insurgent attack.''

Two soldiers from the US Army were killed in Wardak, which is mostly under Taleban control, last week after a reported insurgent attack.

Carlos Aparicio, 19, and Rafael Bigai Baez, 28, died from wounds sustained when insurgents used an improvised explosive device to attack their unit on September 23.

SAS TO CONTINUE WORLD CUP DUTY

Special Air Service troops pumping up security at the Rugby World Cup are unlikely to stand down to mourn Smith's death.

 

A group of SAS troops returned to New Zealand in an counter-terrorism role for the Rugby World Cup.

They held exercise in the lead up of the big event, practicing a range of scenarios including bombing and kidnapping.

A Defence Force spokesman wouldn't reveal any information on the secretive SAS troops in New Zealand for the Cup, but said it was unlikely they would be stood down.

The soldiers would continue their tasks during the tournament, he said.

MORE POLITICAL REACTION

Labour leader Phil Goff said it was "not the time to talk about the rights and wrongs" of the SAS presence in Afghanistan.

"This is the time to stand alongside the family and share with them their grief and their sense of tragedy at this loss," Goff said.

"I want to express my deep personal sympathy, love and support for the family of the soldier who died in action."

Goff lost his American nephew, Lieutenant Matthew Ferrara, in an ambush in Afghanistan in November 2007.

"I guess I understand better than most how his family and how his friends will be feeling at this time."

The war in Afghanistan was no longer, if it had ever been, about the war on terror, Greens co-leader Russel Norman said.

The latest death should send a clear message that getting involved in a civil war was only going to cause further pain, he said.

"In order to avoid more tragedies I think it is time to bring them [the SAS] home." 

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said: "I'm not a great supporter of our soldiers fighting in countries where in fact I don't believe that we understand enough about the regimes that are running those countries.

"We're not politically aware of what the significant issues are there.

"I think there have been major issues in Afghanistan and I think it's time for us to review our role there."

A TERRIBLE TOLL

Last month SAS soldier Doug Grant, 41, was killed after an attack by the Taleban at the British Council diplomatic offices.

Grant was killed in the country's capital, Kabul, helping save the lives of three British civilians and two Gurkha security guards.

Lieutenant Timothy Andrew O'Donnell, 28, was killed in August 2010.

He and two of his fellow soldiers were injured when their patrol was ambushed in the province of Bamiyan.

New Zealand troops were first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001. The National-led Government redeployed the SAS to Kabul in 2009.

New Zealand also has a peacekeeping unit, the Provincial Reconstruction Team, based in Bamiyan. That unit has been there since 2003 and is due to pull out in September 2014.

- Stuff

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