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5 Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard mourns five troops killed in Afghanistan in 24 hours

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 3:47pm
AFP

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Five Australian troops were killed in two separate incidents in Afghanistan in what Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday described as the nation's deadliest day in combat since the Vietnam war.

The deaths, which included three killings in an "insider attack" by an Afghan solider, meant 38 Australian lives have now been lost in the conflict.

"This is a very big toll... our single worst day in Afghanistan," said Gillard, who cut short a trip to the Pacific Islands Forum to return home and deal with the fallout. "Indeed, this is the most [lives] lost in combat since the days of the Vietnam war."

Australia's acting defence chief Air Marshal Mark Binskin said the first incident occurred inside a patrol base near Tirin Kot in the restive southern Uruzgan province, where about 1,500 Australian troops are deployed. In the second, two Australian special forces soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed in Helmand province.

"Three Australian soldiers from the 3RAR task group were shot and killed when an individual wearing an Afghan National Army uniform opened fire with an automatic weapon from close range," he said.

The dead soldiers were aged 40, 23, and 21 and were relaxing at the end of the day when the Afghan opened fire, he added.

General Abdul Hamid Hamid, an Afghan army commander, offered a different account, suggesting it may have been a case of mistaken identity.

"Last night, an Australian forces patrol on foot wanted to enter an Afghan army camp in Chora district of Uruzgan province," Hamid said.

"An Afghan army soldier thought they were enemy forces so he opened fire at them killing three Australian soldiers. He has probably mistakenly fired on foreign soldiers thinking they were militants," he said.

The soldier, known as Hekmat, had been serving in the army in Uruzgan for five months. He fled after the shooting.

Nato has struggled to counter the so-called "green-on-blue" attacks in which uniformed Afghans turn their weapons against their international allies.

The assaults have spiked this year, with more than 30 attacks claiming the lives of 45 coalition troops. Such incidents comprise about 14 per cent of the overall death toll in the war for this period, according to ISAF.

The latest deaths are the third "green-on-blue" incident involving Australian soldiers.

Gillard admitted the spate of insider attacks was making it difficult to build trust between Australians and the Afghans they are training.

Australia announced this year that it would begin withdrawing forces in 2013, earlier than planned due to significant security gains. Canberra has faced increased pressure over the long-running Afghan campaign.