PM won't comment on slain soldier's criticism

By Audrey Young, Herald Online staff

Lance Corporal Luke Tamatea feeding a baby nutrient formula. Photo / Supplied
Lance Corporal Luke Tamatea feeding a baby nutrient formula. Photo / Supplied

The Prime Minister has refused to be drawn on criticism about him by one of the three soldiers killed in Afghanistan on Sunday.

Corporal Luke Douglas Tamatea wasn't impressed with the decision by John Key not to attend funerals of two soldiers killed earlier this month.

Instead Mr Key had flown to the United States to watch his son play in a baseball tournament, skipping the funerals of Lance Corporals Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone, who were killed in an ambush in Afghanistan on August 4.

Just days before he was killed, Corporal Tamatea voiced his belief that the Prime Minister should have stayed in New Zealand to honour the slain soldiers.

"If I was a leader of a country I would attend the funerals of our fallen soldiers..... I wouldn't be at a f****** baseball game!!" he posted on Facebook on August 9, TVNZ reported.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English took Mr Key's place at the funerals.

Mr Key has said he will attend the funeral of Corporal Tamatea, 31, as well as those of Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, and Private Richard Lee Harris, 21, who died instantly when a roadside bomb destroyed their Humvee in Northeast Bamiyan Province.

Asked about Corporal Tamatea's comments this morning, Mr Key refused to be drawn saying: "I have huge respect for him. He paid the ultimate price in defence of our country and he has my utmost respect.

Mr Key said that a memorial service was likely to be on Saturday and he would be attending.

He also gave more details around the Government's likely decision to pull out the Provincial Reconstruction Team in April rather than nearer the end of 2013 saying it was dependent on Japan's project to upgrade the Bamiyan airport runway.

"If they start in May it renders the airport unusable by our PRT for at least about six months."

The other option was to take everyone out by road to Kabul "and that is unacceptable to me because that is just too dangerous."

"There would be a number of vehicles that wouldn't be equipped to be able to handle that situation.

"As we saw from the enormous tragedy at the weekend, we are at risk with even very very good equipment."

Asked if specialist troops of the International Security Assistance Forces were doing their jobs in tracking down Taleban, Mr Key said "rather than pointing fingers at each other, the best thing to acknowledge is we are in a war zone, we are in an Afghanistan that is becoming more dangerous and we are in a place where there is more insurgent activity. Our focus should be on how we minimise that danger to our people and how we maximise the disruption of their efforts."

Meanwhile the head of the Defence Force Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said New Zealand troops would probably have to come under daily attack before they would be given some of the more heavily armoured vehicles used in Afghanistan.

But he said that even in the tougher armoured vehicles, no one would have survived the blast that killed the trio.

The force of the bomb is understood to have thrown one of the soldiers about 60m.

The soldiers were part of a convoy and were travelling in a Humvee, which gives little protection from roadside bombs.

General Jones said: "Nothing could have survived something this big unless it was a much heavier vehicle. This would have destroyed any type of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle."

Countries which had the heavy-duty vehicles "are operating in a far more dangerous [environment] than we are, so in the south and the east is where the priority goes," he told a news conference with Prime Minister John Key and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman.

Asked later if the NZ troops might get some of the tougher vehicles, General Jones said: "Not at this stage, because despite the attacks we have had and the rise in activities over the past couple of months, this is still a relatively quiet part of Afghanistan.

"The priority for those vehicles [is they] go where there are attacks on almost a daily basis."

Asked if that was what it would take for New Zealanders to get them, he said, "Probably."

New Zealand journalist Jon Stephenson, who works in Kabul, said that after the blast, troops from the attacked convoy searched the area and found and defused another bomb.

"If they hadn't done that, it's possible we could be dealing with a much greater number of fatalities."

He called the road the troops were travelling along a "no-go" area, and said it was becoming increasingly dangerous, even for locals.

"For someone like me, travelling along it would be like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber," he said.

The Prime Minister revealed yesterday that another specialist IED (improvised explosive device) team had been sent to Afghanistan last week after two New Zealand soldiers were killed two weeks ago.

The bodies of the three slain soldiers are expected to arrive at the military base at Burnham, near Christchurch, on Thursday.

Responsibility for finding the bomb makers lay with the Afghanistan police, General Jones said, but defence forces could support them in that.

"Possibly one of the actions we may need to take is a strike but ... the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] special forces would be the ones to undertake that."

New Zealand might contribute intelligence and planning support.

Mr Key said he would consider sending a small number of SAS troops back to Afghanistan in a planning and logistics role, but he had been told by General Jones they would not be required in a combat capability.

Mr Key also said yesterday that the Government had been considering bringing back the 145 members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan as early as April, and had been considering it before the deaths two weeks ago.

He expected to confirm that within a fortnight.

"The Cabinet's preference is more around April ... "In terms of the argument of 'should we simply cut and run and leave this afternoon', that is not sensible."

The PRT has been in Bamiyan since 2003.

The year of withdrawal has been brought forward, with most ISAF forces, from 2014 to next year, but the date had not been confirmed.

The Taleban has taken responsibility for the bombing that killed the New Zealanders.

The increasing danger in Bamiyan province is thought to be coming from neighbouring Baghlan province.

Asked why he believed Bamiyan had become more dangerous, General Jones said it was because it was one of the first provinces declared ready to return to Afghan control.

"The Taleban have been making statements to say, 'We'll show you that no part of Afghanistan is safe.' So it really is the tall poppy syndrome of targeting those areas that are being held up as examples of successful transition."

Mr Key said New Zealand would not be "running out of Afghanistan" and ruled out pulling out the troops before next April.

"It's not just as simple as clicking our fingers and taking our people out.

"We have lost 10 brave New Zealanders, and we don't honour their service or their lives and the commitment and the ultimate sacrifice that they paid by running out of Afghanistan and doing the last bit of our work there in an unprofessional manner."

LANCE CORPORAL JACINDA BAKER

Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, was born in Christchurch and attended Rangiora High School.

She joined the army as a medic in 2007 and was posted to the Regional Support Company at Burnham.

In 2010, she was posted to the Solomon Islands for three months, and received the NZ General Service Medal Solomon Islands

A year later, she received a Chief of Army Commendation for courage.

Childhood friend Christine Donk told TVNZ that Lance Corporal Baker "was just fascinated by anything medical and she loved discipline and loved a challenge so the army gave her all of that".

Ms Donk said her death was a huge shock.

Lance Corporal Baker, who is the first female New Zealand soldier killed in conflict, has a partner in the Defence Force. (In 1966, Lesley Estelle Cowper died in the Vietnam War, but she was a nurse in the New Zealand surgical team.)

The Defence Force removed policy barriers to allow women to be employed in combat roles in 2000.

The Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, said 10 women were serving in Bamiyan and another two were at the United States air base at Bagram, near the Afghan capital, Kabul.

They include a major serving with logistics, a warrant officer in the personnel branch, two medics, a vehicle mechanic, a signaller and a supply technician.

PRIVATE RICHARD HARRIS

Private Richard Lee Harris, 21, from Pukekohe, was always very outdoorsy - he was in his school's 1st XV rugby team, and played other sports - but was also a passionate debater.

Private Harris was the youngest of three children, and lost his own father when he was aged 2.

The principal of Pukekohe High School, Ian McKinnon, said Private Harris' death had shocked the community, which had a lot of sons in the military.

"He was a nice boy - he was ready to go from school, but the teachers and staff here remember him as a very friendly young guy," Mr McKinnon said.

"He was just a great young guy and will be remembered with a real fondness."

Private Harris left Pukekohe High towards the end of 2008, not quite finishing Year 13. At the start of 2009, he enlisted with the army and was sent to East Timor, where he served in 2009 and 2010.

Mr McKinnon said that when Private Harris left high school, he wasn't certain what he wanted to do and started looking at career options.

It was then he discovered the military.

"He was a real adventurous fella," Mr McKinnon said.

The school would hold a memorial service for the fallen soldier, and his name would be placed on a plaque with those of other soldiers killed while serving overseas.

CORPORAL LUKE TAMATEA

Corporal Luke Douglas Tamatea, 31, from Auckland, loved his mother's cooking and looked forward to it when he visited her in Kawerau.

The mayor of the Bay of Plenty town, Malcolm Campbell, remembered Corporal Tamatea as a "big, strapping lad" and a "nice young guy" who often bought meat from Mr Campbell's butcher shop for his mother, Lynn McSweeney, to cook.

The day before Corporal Tamatea flew out for his latest stint in Afghanistan, he bought meat for one of his mother's "boil-ups".

Mayor Campbell believed Corporal Tamatea had a brother and a younger sister.

Corporal Tamatea grew up in Te Teko, near Kawerau, and left Edgecumbe College in 1996.

He joined the army in 2000 and was sent to East Timor in 2001, to the Solomon Islands in 2003 and to Sumatra after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people.

He went to Afghanistan in 2007 and during his time there was pictured (above) feeding a baby nutrient-enriched formula.

- NZ Herald

Your views

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 24 Jul 2014 05:11:45 Processing Time: 1048ms