SAS injuries 'not life-threatening'

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp has revealed two special forces troops hurt in a firefight with Taleban insurgents in Afghanistan yesterday suffered fragmentation injuries from a blast.

New Zealand Special Air Services troops (SAS) were acting in a mentoring role when suicide bombers and armed insurgents attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul early yesterday (NZT).

Prime Minister John Key said the incident escalated and there was a need for the New Zealanders to enter the building, where they played "a very crucial part in making sure the building was safe".

After five hours of violence officials said 10 civilians, most of them hotel staff, and eight insurgents were dead.

The New Zealanders were caught in small arms fire and explosions as an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) helicopter with a sniper team fought insurgents who were on the roof of the hotel.

The Defence Force yesterday said two New Zealand soldiers had suffered moderate injures, with Dr Mapp today more specific.

"They have moderate injuries due to basically blast fragmentation," he told Radio New Zealand from the United States, where he is on a ministerial visit.

The injuries were "not life-threatening" and the soldiers were being assessed overnight.

Dr Mapp would not reveal the exact number of New Zealand troops involved, but said it was a small but crucial number.

He noted the number of SAS troops in Kabul had halved earlier this year and the Afghan crisis response unit led yesterday's operation.

"It was intended that the crisis response unit, who is actually obviously bigger than we are, would lead.

"But as you know the operation did take place over some hours, the insurgents were in different parts of the hotel and it did actually take hours to deal with the issues."

Dr Mapp said special forces needed to take an active role.

"This was a big event, covered internationally, high-profile targets that had been selected by the Taleban. It was essential that it be resolved successfully, and indeed it was resolved successfully.

"But it does show you Afghanistan, it is a war and this year was always going to be known as a difficult year."

The Government remained committed to its special forces deployment in Afghanistan until next March.

Dr Mapp said they were much more highly-trained than the Afghan crisis response unit, which was being trained up from a "fairly low base".

"We've obviously got to continue to build up the capability of the Afghan police and that obviously is taking a bit of time, but they've made huge gains over the last 24 months.

"They simply would not have been able to do the sorts of things they were able to do in Kabul over the last couple of days, 24 months ago."

The goal was to build up the capability of the Afghan forces over the next two years so they could take the lead responsibility.

"That is actually taking place, and the fact that the insurgencies are increasingly resorting to suicide tactics would indicate a certain level of desperation on their part that the actions over the last two years are making a difference."

The hotel was hosting delegates attending an Afghan security conference and a large wedding party when the insurgents struck at dinner time.

Two New Zealand soldiers have been killed serving in Afghanistan.

- NZPA, NZ Herald staff

- NZ Herald

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