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US defence secretary.Leon Panetta said American forces will act on "any information that is credible" to hunt down and send a message to the insurgents in Afghanistan responsible for the deaths of three Kiwi soldiers.
"Any information we have that is credible and that gives the opportuntiy to be able to go after those that did it we will do whatever we have to do in cooperation with the forces in New Zealand to make sure that they understand that nobody attacks our forces and gets away with it."
Mr Panetta made the vow ahead of a presentation ceremony awarding medals to five New Zealand defence personnel who served in Afghanistan.
He praised the work of New Zealand defence forces in the region and acknowledged the "heavy price" New Zealand had paid.
Ten New Zealand soldiers have died, five of them in recent weeks.
"As secretary of defence one of my toughest jobs is to write letters to the families the American fallen," Mr Panetta said.
"I struggle each time for words that can provide comfort or meaning to try to help at a time of such heartbreeak."
But he found there was comfort in assuring the families their dead had died "a hero and a patriot".
"They died fighting for those they loved and a nation they loved; there can be no greater sacrifice. The same is true of the 10 kiwis who have not returned home from Afghanistan. "
Prime Minister John Key confirmed yesterday a small contingent of SAS had returned to Afghanistan to be involved in the hunt for the intelligence against the bombers responsible for the three latest New Zealand deaths.
But it is possible the lead bombers have already headed over the border to Pakistan.
Chief of Defence Rhys Jones confirmed it was usual for al qaeda leadership to cross the border to Pakistan "when it gets a bit hot for them".
He would not confirm, however, whether there was any intelligence to suggest that was the case with the killers of PRT members Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, Private Richard Harris, Corporal Luke Tamatea, and Lance Corporals Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer in two separate incidents.
Earlier, Panetta announced the relaxation of restrictions on New Zealand ship visits to American ports.
Panetta made the announcement in Auckland during a visit for talks with defence minister Jonathan Coleman.
It is the first visit to New Zealand in 30 years for an American defence secretary.
Currently New Zealand ships are banned from US military bases but Panetta said they will now be allowed at bases in the US and around the world, subject to a waiver.
Panetta also announced the lifting of existing restrictions on talks between senior military personnel, which had previously required a waiver from the US.
He said the relaxation of restrictions on New Zealand naval ships signalled a new era in the relationship and a drive to deepen cooperation between the two countries.
Asked when a New Zealand naval ship would visit a US base, Panetta said it would probably happen soon.
But when asked if a US warship would visit New Zealand soon he sidestepped the issue.
Under its "one fleet" policy, the US refuses to distinguish between ships that carry nuclear weapons, or are nuclear powered, and those that are not.
Panetta, who was welcomed to Auckland's Government House with a traditional powhiri this afternoon, leaves tomorrow after a barbecue with Prime Minister John Key.
Talks while he is here are likely to include Afghanistan, the US military's new focus on Asia and the Pacific and the step up in military training and exercises between the two countries.
The lifting of the ban on New Zealand warships entering American military ports came after our navy was snubbed last year during a major multi-national naval exercise off Hawaii.
After being invited to the Rimpac exercise for the first time in 28 years, the Kiwis were blocked from berthing at Pearl Harbour, and forced to dock at a civilian port downtown.
The ban was one of the remaining vestiges of a "presidential waiver" system slapped in place by the US in retaliation for New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation. Other restrictions, including intelligence sharing and a ban on training and exercises together, have since been lifted.
GOOD FRIENDS AGAIN
After a 30-year standoff, the US and New Zealand are making up for lost time. Beneath the quiet diplomacy there has been an aggressive push to step up co-operation between our armed forces.
At "synchronisation talks" at the start of this year a new course was laid out by senior defence personnel from both countries: there was to be a gear change from the previous focus on co-operation and humanitarian work in the Pacific, to more direct military exercises and training.
The most visible of those was New Zealand's invitation to Rimpac. It used to be a standing joke that there were only two countries in the world not invited to the monster display of military might - North Korea and New Zealand.
This year's guest list included 22 nations, 42 ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel. The vestiges of the old grudges over the Anzus rift were not eradicated, however.
The New Zealanders were required to dock at a civilian port, away from the American warships at Pearl Harbour, a hangover from the old system that for years required a presidential waiver before any military-to-military exchange.
Other exercises have been less visible. In February, New Zealand joined nine other countries taking part in Exercise Bold Alligator on America's east coast, one of the biggest joint and multinational amphibious assault exercises in a decade.
In June, Operation Galvanic Kiwi saw our troops train alongside marine combat engineers in the US.
And in April, 35 Marines and 41 army personnel participated with New Zealand and British troops during the 10-day Exercise Alam Halfa, held in the central North Island.
Ernest Bower, of Washington-based Centre for Strategic Studies, said the step-up in the defence relationship fell under the umbrella of US President Barack Obama's much-trumpeted "pivot to Asia", a US strategy " to really shore up and improve relations that should have made sense across Asia years ago".
"It means visiting, it means senior level exchanges on a regular basis, and it means institutionalising this relationship and that is clearly what this visit [by Secretary Panetta] is all about."
But most defence analysts also see the "pivot" strategy as one that is aimed primarily at containing China.
The trip has sparked the usual flurry over ship visits. An American report quoting unnamed US officials as suggesting Panetta would announce the resumption of US warship visits sparked a phone call from Washington to Coleman on Monday night reassuring him that was not the case.
Bower says a ship visit anytime soon is unlikely and it would cut across the quiet diplomacy of recent years aimed at reassuring Kiwis that getting closer to the Americans does not mean sacrificing nuclear-free New Zealand.
"It's a quiet evolution . . . and if you think about the guys who run the relationship, that's where they want to be. I notice New Zealand leaders are not chest-beating, except when it comes to sports of course. In terms of diplomacy and security relations, I think everybody would want to carefully and slowly keep doing things to keep expanding that list."
But if ship visits are the last bastion, three-way exercises involving the old Anzus allies, New Zealand, the US, and Australia, are almost as sensitive. None have been held so far, in recognition of the old sensitivities.
But Bower says no-one is in any hurry to push the relationship ahead faster than people are comfortable with.
And as for the Pearl Harbour snub, that fence would be mended over time. "Some of the older guys in our navy still carry some baggage, and there are some in New Zealand who still feel pretty strongly about this stuff.
"Some of those guys are still around and maybe one of them was in charge of parking."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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