No SAS strike team sent to Afghanistan: Key

DANYA LEVY AND NICOLE PRYOR
Last updated 13:05 31/10/2012

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Prime Minister John Key has confirmed the few SAS soldiers remaining in Afghanistan are all working in the area of logistics.

Key was responding to reports this morning that SAS combat troops had been sent back to the country to carry out a revenge attack on insurgents who killed five New Zealand soldiers in the Bamiyan province in August.

Two months ago lance corporals Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer were killed in a fire fight. Two weeks later Private Richard Harris, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker and Corporal Luke Tamatea were killed in the same areas roadside bomb - or improvised explosive device - hit their humvee vehicle.

Reporter Jon Stephenson, who was based in the Afghanistan capital Kabul, today claimed sources in the United States military and New Zealand SAS community told him members of the elite force had been sent to help hunt the insurgents.

"I've been told the mission of these troops is not to gather intelligence but to help carry out the strikes or the raids on those insurgents that killed the PRT (provincial reconstruction team) in August," he told Radio New Zealand.

However this afternoon Key said if the troops were to stray from their agreed activity, he would have received a request - which he had not.

''It's really logistics and planning - we're obviously providing support for those special forces that might go in and deal with the issues of insurgent activity, but they would be special forces from other countries.''

''They have a mandate. They have operational rules, and they have to abide by those operational rules.''

Key said if the chief of defence had a change of heart and wanted them in a combat role, it would be outside the rules of engagement and he would have to ask the Government.

Key added he never had any advice they were doing that.

''They're not picking up weapons and going after insurgents, they are doing planning for operations for that.''

He said he could not be held responsible if the defence force had broken the rules of their engagement, but there was no evidence to say they had.

Key said he did not know where Stevenson was getting his information from, but he has made claims like that before.

''Only Jon Stevenson knows that,'' he said.

''I'm sure he's got his own range of contacts. But it's not correct."

The New York Times today reports that the insurgency in Afghanistan has "finally found Bamian" where the New Zealanders are based.

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Its correspondent says that recent Taliban attacks in the area, including those which killed five New Zealanders, "has intimidated residents and served notice that roads are unsafe and government officials are targets".

The report says the Taliban want it known that no where in Afghanistan is beyond their reach.

The Times says the Taliban now regularly descend from the hills at night in shows of strength, setting up their own checkpoints after local police officers have left.

They take those opportunities to rob, or kill, travellers, local officials say. And they regularly carry out deadly incursions into Bamian itself, particularly in a section of its northeast.

According to Mohammad Aziz Shafaq, head of Bamian's provincial council, fear has begun constricting both their livelihoods and lives.

Ordinary people "cannot feel safe to go to their farms and do their work," he told the NYT.

"Businessmen do not feel safe sending supplies in and out of the province because they fear they will be confiscated by illegal armed men and insurgents."

For residents, the most serious signs of encroachment came this summer when two roadside bombs hit Afghan police patrols, and then the longstanding New Zealand peacekeeping force lost five of its personnel in two attacks.

In one of the attacks, about 40 New Zealand soldiers were drawn into an unexpectedly fierce and prolonged gun battle when they responded to calls for help from Afghan intelligence forces raiding a compound outside the village of Baghak, in the northwest.

"Even the locals were surprised at how it spiraled," Major General David Gawn, commander of the joint forces of New Zealand, told the Times.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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