NZ troops pull back from danger zone

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 01/11/2012

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New Zealand troops have pulled out of the dangerous northeast of Bamiyan province in Afghanistan, where seven Kiwi soldiers lost their lives in the last two years.

The forward bases at Do Abe and Romero have been closed and essentially dismantled as part of the withdrawal.

The move, which should reduce the risk of New Zealand casualties ahead of their April 2013 exit from Afghanistan, was confirmed yesterday by Defence Force sources.

But Prime Minister John Key refused to comment, even though it was mentioned in a Wall St Journal article several days ago and is likely to have taken place in early October.

Mr Key said it was an operational matter.

The pullout had been well signalled because it made no sense to man the bases through the harsh Afghan winter, when there is less insurgent activity and the roads are often deep in snow.

In August, New Zealand lost three soldiers in the northeast killed by an improvised explosive device, and two in an action against bomb-makers. Another died in a non-combat incident at the Romero base. In 2010 New Zealand's first casualty, Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell, was killed during a Taleban attack on his patrol in the northeast.

The 140 troops in the provincial reconstruction team (PRT) have now consolidated around the main Kiwi base in Bamiyan township, near the airport.

The area's dominant ethnic Hazarans are hostile to the Taleban insurgents, who destroyed their giant Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001, making it one of the safest regions in Afghanistan.

Bamiyan is one of the first provinces to be handed over to local forces under the plan to withdraw all international troops by 2014, but locals fear police will not be able to contain the insurgency.

New Zealand troops have been in Bamiyan as part of the PRT since 2003, but there are no Afghan army units there.

A spokesman for Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman yesterday refused to say if New Zealand troops had crossed the border into neighbouring Baghlan province where the insurgents thought to be responsible for the August attacks were based.

Meanwhile, Mr Key yesterday rejected reports that SAS troops would be redeployed to Bamiyan to avenge the recent killings.

Radio NZ reported the troops would be additional to the previously-disclosed four to six SAS soldiers based in Kabul and Bamiyan, who the Government said were in liaison and intelligence roles.

But Mr Key denied that, and said the number of SAS in the country still stood at four to six.

"We are obviously providing support for those special forces that might go in and deal with some of the issues of insurgent activity. But they would be special forces from other countries. New Zealand does not have SAS forces that are involved in combat activity nor have I been asked to send any in relation to combat activity."

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- Fairfax Media

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