Australia firm on Afghan mission despite deaths: PM

SYDNEY, June 8, 2010 (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Tuesday said sending troops to Afghanistan remained an important mission for civilised nations, after 10 NATO soldiers died in the alliance's deadliest day this year.

Two Australians killed by a roadside bomb during a patrol in the restive southern province of Uruzgan were among the 10 foreign soldiers who died in a rash of attacks on Monday.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announces the deaths of two Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan during a press conference in Sydney on June 8, 2010. AFP photo

"This has a been a hard day, a difficult day for so many of our people in uniform and those in uniform from other lands," Rudd said.

"There are families grieving today all around the world.

"But the mission... is an important mission for all civilised countries."

Seven American troops also died on Monday in two bomb blasts and a small arms attack, while a French soldier was killed by a rocket attack, making it one of NATO's deadliest days of the nine-year conflict.

Australia has about 1,550 troops in Uruzgan, making it the 10th biggest contributor to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Rudd, who has called the war "unpopular", sent 450 reinforcements last year but has resisted Washington's calls to provide more and Tuesday repeated his stance that Canberra's commitment "is about right".

"We have never extended a blank cheque when it comes to our troop commitment," he told reporters in Sydney.

The prime minister said there were indications that Australian forces were making progress in the former Taliban heartland of Uruzgan, where they are mentoring Afghan National Army soldiers.

"But let us make no bones about it, this is a very tough and difficult continuing military campaign," the prime minister said.

"And we are up against a determined and dangerous enemy. However, under no circumstances can Australians afford to allow Afghanistan to become a free operating training base for terrorist organisations in the future.

"Therefore our resolve must be firm and we must complete the mission that we have set for ourselves."

Rudd said the security situation in Afghanistan was changing in some areas, but the deaths were a sobering reminder of the dangerous work of the military.

The Australian soldiers are the first Australians to die in 11 months, and their deaths bring to 13 the number killed in the campaign.

Acting Australian Defence Force chief David Hurley said one man died instantly after the roadside bomb exploded in the Mirabad Valley, and the second received emergency first aid but could not be saved.

A sniffer dog also died in the incident, which will be subject to a military investigation.

Asked whether the NATO-led coalition was winning against the insurgents after almost a decade of clashes, Hurley said: "Bodies aren't going to tell whether you win or lose this war.

"Some good things are happening and we're heading in the right direction."

It was the first time since the Vietnam war that two Australian soldiers died in combat on the same day, Hurley said.

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