Key urged not to bow to US as Kiwis escape blast

By Derek Cheng

New Zealand personnel in Afghanistan continue to be in the line of fire, as Prime Minister John Key is being urged not to bow to American pressure to extend their time in the war-torn country.

Early yesterday - 3am NZ time - a routine New Zealand patrol in north-eastern Bamyan province was rocked by an explosion.

The team of provincial reconstruction personnel, moving in light armoured vehicles, were unharmed, nor was there any damage to the vehicles.

"Improvised explosive devices are a known insurgent tactic in this area, and this is also the time of year when the threat level increases," said Commander Joint Forces Major General Dave Gawn.

"Bamyan province as a whole remains stable and work on transition [to Afghan security forces] will continue."

The incident follows a three-hour gunfight on Sunday in Kabul in which New Zealand's elite SAS soldiers took part after Taleban insurgents stormed the home of Jan Mohammed Khan, a close adviser to President Hamid Karzai.

No New Zealanders were hurt, but one Afghan security force member and two insurgents were killed.

Mr Key described the SAS role as a mentoring one that turned into direct contact when the fighting escalated.

Last night there were unconfirmed reports that SAS engagement had ended Sunday's gunfight, which it also did last month after an intense raid by nine insurgents on the Inter-Continental Hotel. Up to 22 died in that battle.

The incidents are likely to make Afghanistan a hot topic when Mr Key meets US President Barack Obama on Friday.

Mr Key has said he will tell the President that the SAS intend to withdraw in March, and the reconstruction team in 2014.

But he has not closed the door on extending the mission, saying the SAS wanted to stay on.

Green MP Keith Locke warned that Mr Key was softening up the New Zealand public for extending the mission.

"By leaving open the fact that the mission might be extended, it makes it easier for him to do so. It is very strange for a politician to [base decisions] on what the troops in the field want to do, rather than the Government judging the nature of the mission."

Mr Locke said the SAS should not be in Afghanistan because they were propping up a corrupt Government, and their role with the Afghan Crisis Response Unit was unclear.

- NZ Herald

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