Key's Hungarian slur causes offence

Last updated 05:00 08/08/2012

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Hungary's honorary consul-general to New Zealand is personally offended by John Key's comments that the reluctance of Hungarian soldiers to patrol in Afghanistan endangered Kiwi troops.

Klara Szentirmay said how the two countries' neighbouring provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) conducted patrols was a matter for the leaders of the units.

New Zealand soldiers Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone were killed by insurgents who had crossed from Baghlan, which is the responsibility of Hungary's 400-strong PRT, at the weekend. Six other New Zealand soldiers were injured. Their forward Do Abe base was also attacked.

The bodies of the two soldiers are expected to be flown back to New Zealand tomorrow.

Cabinet on Monday gave approval for Kiwi troops based in Bamiyan to extend their patrols into Baghlan. The Kiwi contingent was granted this power after the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell in 2010, when the SAS mounted a raid inside Baghlan against the insurgents responsible.

On Monday, Mr Key criticised Hungarian efforts and their refusal to patrol after dark.

"Hungarians don't go out at night - they might in Budapest, but not in Afghanistan."

A WikiLeaks cable in 2009 from the United States ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, highlighting dangers in the region, was also critical of the Hungarians.

"Ostensibly peaceful Baghlan . . . generally flies under the radar. It actually deserves to be labelled the wild, wild west," he said.

Direct insurgent activity was limited, but criminal elements had links to the Taleban and offered themselves for hire.

‘The Hungarian PRT does little to address any of these problems.

"They are not permitted to fire their weapons except in self-defence, do little more than patrol the main roads and undertake no counter-narcotics activities," he said. "When the security situation in northeastern Bamiyan province was threatened by Baghlan-based malefactors, it was the New Zealanders who had to cross into Baghlan to address the problem."

The Hungarian PRT saw itself as a humanitarian and development force, Mr Eikenberry said. Its troops "are looking to . . . get back home unscathed".

Yesterday, Mr Key acknowledged the Hungarians' stance had not changed since they arrived in 2003. The Government would not pressure Budapest or the International Security and Assistance Force to change Hungary's rules of engagement.

Ms Szentirmay said Mr Key's comments were unhelpful. "It's a shame the prime minister felt the need to express this opinion when really it's a question of working together well."

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Although the Hungarian Government was not offended by Mr Key's comments, Ms Szentirmay said she was personally. "Why throw in a comment like this which implies ‘these bloody eastern Europeans'? He hasn't said that, obviously, but there's this undertone."

Hungary, which has lost seven soldiers in Afghanistan, expressed its condolences for New Zealand's tragic loss, she said.

- The Dominion Post

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