Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard cut short her trip to a major Pacific summit on Wednesday after five of the nation’s troops were killed in two separate incidents in Afghanistan.
Gillard cancelled all appointments at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in the Cook Islands so she could return to Canberra after Australia’s worst day for casualties since the war started.
Her departure means she will miss a visit to the 15-nation forum later this week by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the most senior official from Washington to ever attend the summit.
Gillard said she had explained to Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna that she had to return home on Wednesday evening after the “shocking” news and he expressed his condolences over the deaths.
“In the wake of this news, I have made the judgement call that it is appropriate for me to return,” she told reporters at the summit. “That will mean I can be in Canberra tomorrow to receive the most extensive briefing.”
She said Richard Marles, the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, would represent her at the summit.
The deaths included three troops killed in an “insider attack” by an Afghan soldier in southern Uruzgan province and two special forces members whose helicopter crashed in Helmand province.
Gillard’s dash to Canberra also came as Australian officials said they had grave concerns for up to 144 asylum seekers whose boat was missing off the Indonesian coast.
Earlier in the day, before the news broke, Gillard announced Australia was launching a major programme to promote gender equality in the Pacific region but acknowledged it would take generations to achieve significant progress.
Australia’s first female prime minister said the 10-year, US$330 million programme aimed to increase the political and economic influence of women in the Pacific.
“We know that societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating as equals... and a key indicator of economic advancement is the full inclusion of women,” she said.
Gillard said women made up only five per cent of parliamentarians in the Pacific, compared to 18 per cent globally, and accounted for just a third of the workforce in many parts of the region.
Violence against women was “all too prevalent in our part of the world”, she added.
“The Pacific is already on its way to empowering women, but this is the work of generations,” Gillard said.
“Australia is pleased to be able to support a decade-long partnership and I have no doubt that we will continue to see further change for women in the region in which we live.”