Key at odds with Mapp on SAS

By Amelia Romanos

Prime Minister John Key and Minister of Defence Wayne Mapp have defended the government's commitment of troops to Afghanistan. Photo / Getty Images
Prime Minister John Key and Minister of Defence Wayne Mapp have defended the government's commitment of troops to Afghanistan. Photo / Getty Images

Prime Minister John Key appears to be at odds with his Defence Minister about the extent to which SAS troops in Afghanistan are involved in combat.

There have been fresh concerns about the dangers facing New Zealand troops following the death of Lance Corporal Leon Smith this week.

Lance Corporal Smith, 33, died on Tuesday after being shot in the head while taking part in a raid in Wardak province, southwest of Kabul.

His death followed that of fellow SAS soldier Corporal Doug Grant, who was killed in an attack by the Taliban at the British Council offices in Kabul last month.

The Government has continually emphasised that the SAS is acting in a "mentoring'' role to Afghanistan's Crisis Response Unit (CRU), but yesterday Defence Minister Wayne Mapp admitted troops did have a "substantial combat role''.

"We are supporting, but it's self-evidently dangerous and the roles can shift pretty quickly and easily, depending on the circumstances,'' Dr Mapp said.

However, when asked today, Mr Key denied the troops were in a combat role.

"No, look it's a mentoring role and, you know, I've taken the liberty of checking that at length with the head of the SAS.''

Meanwhile, Green Party foreign affairs spokesman Keith Locke has called for an urgent inquiry into the circumstances of the raid.

"We are all mourning the death of Lance Corporal Smith, and it would be even more tragic if he died needlessly in a raid motivated by false intelligence,'' Mr Locke said.

"An independent journalist on the ground in Afghanistan claims the raid was the result of a family feud, and that the Governor of the province where the raid occurred - Wardak - is seeking answers.''

Mr Locke said raids based on false intelligence had been a feature of the war in Afghanistan, and it would be damaging for the country's reputation if New Zealand troops were involved in operations in which innocent Afghan civilians were killed.

Chief of Defence Force (CDF) Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said the operation was in response to information the compound was housing a suicide bomber planning an attack in the capital.

He dismissed the reports of a family feud as incorrect.

"Unless it was a humdinger of a family dispute, the time taken to compile the information to actually get the legal authority (search and arrest warrant), indicates that this was a measured and legal response, not a response to a neighbour giving information and a tipoff,'' he said.

"Although there may be some doubt about the quality of the Afghan legal process in rumours, the reality is that this has been mentored and has visibility by UN and by ISAF, ... the partner nations.''

No details were given about whether bomb-making material or suicide vests had been found at the compound.

Mr Key said he would get more information on those details in due course.

"But the advice I've had, at least the information I've seen from the CDF, is that he's confident that the raid was appropriate and it was mandated.''

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