Australia mourns soldier killed in Afghanistan

SYDNEY (AFP) — Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday an Australian soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan died for a just cause while fighting “brutal terrorism”.

The death was only the second combat loss for Australia since it sent troops into Afghanistan and Iraq in the US-led “war on terror” in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

No soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq, while a Special Air Service sergeant died in Afghanistan in February 2002 when his vehicle hit a landmine.

The news of the latest death led bulletins in Australia, which has some 900 troops serving in Afghanistan and a further 1,575 deployed to support the war in Iraq.

“This is a sad day for the Australian army, it’s a sad day for the Australian community,” Howard told reporters in Hobart.

“The operation in Afghanistan involves resisting brutal terrorism, it’s a just cause and this soldier was part of an Australian contribution to that just cause.”

Howard faces an election by the end of the year and opinion polls show him trailing the opposition Labor Party, which has pledged to pull Australian troops out of Iraq if they win power.

But Labor backs the deployment in Afghanistan and the soldier’s death is unlikely to become a political issue.

The bulk of Australia’s troops in Afghanistan have been deployed to the southern province of Uruzgan, a former Taliban stronghold, to assist a Dutch-led reconstruction operation.

Trooper David Pearce, 41, was killed, and another soldier seriously injured, when a roadside bomb exploded next to their light armoured vehicle, six kilometres (3.5 miles) from their Tarin Kowt base on Monday.

The head of the Australian military, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said Afghanistan was becoming more dangerous and that explosive devices similar to those used against coalition forces in Iraq were now being deployed.

There had been 25 roadside bomb attacks in the past four months, he said.

“When we first went in back in 2005 with the Special Operations Taskforce we didn’t see too many improvised explosive devices in the province,” he said.

“But certainly this year there has been a lot more.”

Asked whether Iranian weapons were entering Afghanistan, Houston replied: “We believe that might be so.

“We are starting to see similar devices to those that are deployed in Iraq,” he told a press conference in Canberra.

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