Afghan deaths show dangers

TRACY NEAL AND FAIRFAX
Last updated 13:00 06/08/2012

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Nelson police inspector Brian McGurk wants New Zealanders to remember the important role Kiwis are playing in Afghanistan, in the wake of the deaths at the weekend of two New Zealand soldiers in a fiery battle.

"We are helping the Afghan people. That's what we're there for - that is our mission and we need to be fiercely proud of that," Mr McGurk said in Nelson this morning.

He has recently returned from secondment in Afghanistan with a European Union mission.

The two members of the Kiwi provincial reconstruction team killed were in their 20s, and neither had children, Prime Minister John Key said today. The soldiers, from the 2nd First Battalion, based at Burnham near Christchurch, had been in Afghanistan since April and were due home in October.

They are expected to be named this afternoon.

Six other New Zealanders were injured when their armoured vehicles were fired at on Saturday night, New Zealand time, in the northeast of Bamiyan province as they were called in to help local forces.

Mr Key said he he would contact the dead soldier's families.

"They don't have a lot of family. Neither of them are married. One has a partner, but the partner's also part of the New Zealand Defence Force and actually is overseas. The other guy doesn't have a lot of family at all in New Zealand," he told Radio Live.

"Fortunately, no children were involved."

United States media reported that a Taleban spokesman had claimed responsibility for the Afghan and New Zealand deaths.

The deaths bring the total number of New Zealanders who have died in Afghanistan to seven.

Mr Key said said the insurgents who killed the two soldiers at the weekend may have been testing local forces ahead of New Zealand's withdrawal of Kiwi troops from the Bamiyan province.

New Zealand was unlikely to withdraw the PRT earlier than late next year as planned, despite growing danger in Bamiyan, he said.

Mr Key said the situation for New Zealand troops was more hostile than it was when they first went into Bamiyan in 2003.

"There is greater firepower going in from the Taleban, they've got a new bomb maker, they are better resourced and they have moved people up from the southern provinces."

The prime minister said it was believed the attack was from a group of 17 insurgents New Zealand troops had been tracking for some time.

"One of the theories is because Bamiyan is one of the first provinces likely to be transitioned, so control going back to the Afghan people, this is a bit of a show of strength if you like, to undermine the confidence of the people of Bamiyan because they know New Zealand is leaving."

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Mr McGurk said the deaths underlined that Afghanistan was a "very risky and dangerous place".

"It's hard to put into words but I don't think the good people of Nelson could understand just how dangerous it is there."

Mr McGurk said threats were always present, and all the New Zealanders there were acutely aware of that. He knew the area where the attack occurred, but could not comment further.

Mr McGurk alluded to the extreme risk in one of his regular dispatches from Afghanistan which was printed in the Nelson Mail last December. The month before he and four New Zealand police colleagues were in Kabul for a series of briefings and meetings during Eid ul-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice. They chose to fly the short distance to avoid the road.

The week before, one of the supply trucks arrived at Kiwibase in Bamiyan with bullet holes all over it after being "held up by insurgents or some criminal gang in Baghlan".

While Mr McGurk was in Kabul he spent most of the time confined to quarters, partly because of the Eid ul-Adha holiday but mainly because of the significant increase in threat levels.

That week there was a suicide bomber in Baghlan, and six people were killed at a mosque. There were gunshots fired outside the headquarters of the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan where he was based. One of the police checkpoints he and colleagues had travelled through a couple of times was fired upon.

After he returned to Bamiyan there were a couple of rocket attacks in Kabul and a suicide bomber wearing a bomb vest was shot dead on the road.

The weekend attack that involved the New Zealanders happened two years to the day after Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell was killed when his patrol was attacked in the same area.

- The Nelson Mail

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