New Zealand SAS troops were in the thick of a deadly gunfight in Afghanistan that left three Taliban militants dead, a witness says.
French photographer Philip Poupin says he saw the elite Kiwi soldiers emerge from a building after the Taliban attack where the insurgents' bodies were later found.
After the attack on Afghanistan's Presidential Palace in Kabul on Monday, Poupin took photographs of Victoria Cross winner Corporal Willie Apiata and two other members of the New Zealand Special Air Service.
The publication of the photos yesterday has sparked debate about news media showing members of the SAS on duty.
The fact that one of the soldiers was Corporal Apiata was not disclosed until Prime Minister John Key officially announced it at a press conference yesterday afternoon.
Poupin told The Dominion Post that he saw a "tired and sweaty" Corporal Apiata emerge from the building.
"They were going out of the building where the three insurgents were. They walked towards the Presidential Palace, no car, no Humvee," said Poupin from a hotel room in Kabul. "They were really close to the insurgents ... they were there to fight."
Once the battle subsided, Poupin went inside the building and saw the bodies of three militants. "There were two in one room and one in another. I can't tell you if [the New Zealanders] were directly fighting with the insurgents ... but I could say they were right there."
They were the only Western troops involved in the battle, he said.
Monday night's attack was one of the biggest in Kabul since the war began in 2001. It followed three suicide bombings in the capital.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister John Key described the SAS's role in the battle as "very limited", saying they were "quite a long way back" from the building and fired no shots.
He only confirmed their presence after it was revealed by a New York Times reporter.
Thirteen people died in the battle and at least 70 were injured.
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said yesterday that the SAS members were not as close to the fighting as Poupin suggested.
"That's the information we have. Both the prime minister and I have acted on the advice we've received."
Corporal Apiata was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2007 for carrying an injured Kiwi soldier out of the firing line during an attack in Afghanistan three years earlier.
Yesterday Mr Key criticised media for publishing a photograph of Corporal Apiata that clearly showed his face, saying it put the soldier at further risk.
He said Corporal Apiata would probably stay in Afghanistan until the end of his deployment. "He is a very brave New Zealand soldier and he wants to be on deployment."
The NZ Defence Force website features several photographs of Corporal Apiata, and has released photographs of him on duty in the past.
Dominion Post editor Bernadette Courtney said the paper published Corporal Apiata's photograph because it was the first picture of New Zealand SAS troops in Kabul after they responded to a Taliban attack.
It was well known that the SAS was in Kabul, and the prime minister had confirmed the soldier in the picture was Corporal Apiata, she said.
"Corporal Willie Apiata is a war hero who requested to return to Afghanistan. He was paraded in front of the public and the media here and around the world when he won his Victoria Cross.
"He has had extensive media training – $35,000 worth of advice paid for by the Defence Force.
"We don't believe media here have placed Corporal Apiata or any of the other SAS members at any greater risk than they already are."
The New Zealand Herald said today the journalist who broke the story of the SAS joining the counterattack against a Taliban strike was surprised at the reaction in New Zealand.
Afghanistan-based New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, in a blog posted to the newspaper's website yesterday, wrote: "New Zealand? At war? Who knew? Not a lot of New Zealanders, apparently."
"The news ... that a team of commandos from New Zealand had joined Afghan soldiers at the scene caused a sensation in the little country off the coast of Australia," he wrote.
Filkins said he spotted the New Zealand soldiers as they moved in to Pashtunistan Square, the site of the Taliban attack, which killed five people and wounded at least 70.
He said one told him to: "Get out of here".
"I saw the patch on his arm announcing his country. Others were more friendly. 'Can't talk now, mate,' said another with a smile."
The Herald's assistant editor John Roughan said the paper stood by the decision to use the picture which, he said, had real news value.
"The soldiers were in a public street, in a major city, visible to anybody, wearing their uniforms, carrying their guns, photographed as the New Zealand SAS," he said.
- with NZPA
- © Fairfax NZ News