Two years to the day since the first Kiwi soldier was killed in Afghanistan, New Zealand is mourning the deaths of two more of its troops; slain in a devastating ambush in Bamyan Province.
Six other New Zealand soldiers were injured – three seriously – when members of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT) were attacked by insurgents armed with anti-tank weapons, rifles and machine guns yesterday.
Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, told a media conference today the New Zealanders had been called to help members of the Afghan police who were taking heavy fire from insurgents in a compound near a village south of Do Abe.
NZPRT patrols arrived at the scene about 11.30am (7pm NZT) and laid down suppressing fire while the local police advanced on the compound and cleared it.
The New Zealanders were then tasked with securing the surrounding area but were ambushed by heavily-armed insurgents.
“We suffered two dead and the remaining six wounded in about a two- to three-minute time frame in that first burst of fire on our forces,” Let Gen Jones said.
One of the men was killed after an anti-tank rocket hit the armoured vehicle he was in, the other died after being hit by either gunfire or shrapnel while he was on foot.
One of them died instantly; the other in a helicopter en route to hospital.
Six other New Zealanders were injured by bullets or blasts, and were flown to two military hospitals in the north of the country. All of them had been in contact with next of kin in New Zealand.
Lt Gen Jones said three men were in a serious but stable condition – they would all likely return to New Zealand – while the other three suffered moderate injuries.
The first New Zealander to die in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell, was killed by Taleban fighters while on patrol in northeast Bamyan on August 4, 2010.
Lt Gen Jones said Australia and the United States had offered to help facilitate bringing the dead New Zealand soldiers home, although arrangements had not yet been confirmed.
Their families had been informed, but their names would not be released for another 24 hours to give loved ones some time to come to terms with their loss.
The insurgents, thought to be from the neighbouring Parwan Province, had been tracked by coalition forces for some time.
It was not known whether they had been waiting for the New Zealand troops, or whether they were there to protect their own forces as they withdrew.
One insurgent had been captured by coalition forces and would probably be handed over to Afghan authorities, Lt Gen Jones said.
Seventeen others were spotted fleeing from the area, carrying their dead and wounded with them.
Lt Gen Jones was confident the NZPRT had acted appropriately during the mission, saying they were “the best in the world”.
“The training standards in New Zealand are equal to anywhere in the world and that’s why I can remain confident that our guys were well prepared for it.
“They were three months into their deployment; they were experienced in operating their gear, the response was very good, but the reality is that this is a battle zone.”
More information about the incident is likely to be released tomorrow after a “post-battle briefing” is completed.
In a sombre address to media today, Prime Minister John Key said the deaths of the two men was “an enormous price to pay”.
“It is with enormous sadness that I acknowledge that these soldiers have paid the highest price. My thoughts are with the family and friends of the two brave soldiers killed and also with the families and friends of those injured.
“It reinforces the danger faced daily by our forces as they work tirelessly to restore stability to the province.”
Mr Key said the deaths would not effect the date of New Zealand troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan next year.
“We’re still working through exactly when that date will be, some time in 2013. It’s quite a large logistical exercise … and we’ve been there for the best part of a decade so it’ll be some time before we can do that.”
He was nonetheless confident things were improving in the war-torn country.
Labour Party leader David Shearer, who previously worked for the United Nations in Afghanistan, said the area the two soldiers were killed in was one of the most volatile in Bamyan Province.
“We are very, very saddened to hear of the loss of two lives. Our first thoughts go out to the families of those that were killed and wounded.”
The latest deaths did not make him reconsider whether New Zealand troops should remain in the country.
“I think we’ve got a programme to withdraw over time and I think that’s probably the right way to go. Unfortunately it’s a dangerous place to work. It’s tragic that it’s happened towards the end of our programme.”
Mr Shearer said the New Zealand contingent was seen as a “model” of how effective a reconstruction team could be.
“We have to acknowledge the great work that our personnel have done in Afghanistan, and in Bamyan in particular. We have been able to improve the lives of people through health and education programmes and we’ve also been able to contribute to the stability and support of the local administration that can take over the running of the province.”
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei told APNZ the deaths were a “terrible tragedy”.
“The Green Party’s love goes out to all of the family members of those who were killed and wounded as well.
“We, like the rest of New Zealand, are waiting for more information about the details.”
Ms Turei said the Provincial Reconstruction Team had been doing very well in Afghanistan and in supporting the community there.
“So this is a real tragedy that this has happened with some of the members of that reconstruction team.”
TRAGIC ROLL CALL
August 2012: Two PRT soldiers killed in an attack in northeast Bamiyan Province.
April 2012: PRT Corporal Douglas Hughes dies in incident at Romero.
September 2011: SAS Lance Corporal Leon Smith killed during an operation in Wardak Province.
August 2011: SAS Corporal Doug Grant, 41, killed during a Taleban attack in Kabul.
February 2011: PRT Private Kirifi Mila killed in a Humvee accident in Bamiyan.
August 2010: PRT Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell killed in a firefight after an ambush in Bamiyan.