Three Australian commandos have been killed and seven injured in a helicopter crash during an early-morning operation against Taleban insurgents in Afghanistan.
The deaths yesterday morning follow those of two engineers less than two weeks ago, and bring to 16 the number of Australian soldiers killed there since 2002.
A further 133 have been wounded.
Defence Force Chief Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said the crash, in which another member of the international force also died and another was injured, occurred as the helicopter flew in the dark above high, rugged mountains in dangerous conditions and was not the result of enemy action.
Other helicopters involved in the operation landed and evacuated the dead and wounded, several of whom remain in a serious condition.
The dead commandos, from the Sydney-based 2nd Commando Regiment, were on their third tour in Afghanistan and had last week taken part in a major operation that Air Chief Marshal Houston said had "completely routed" insurgents at a key Taleban base in the Shah Wali Kot district of northern Kandahar Province.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who said Australia's mission in Afghanistan was critical, told Parliament it was a tragic day for the country and the Defence Force.
"We work beside our allies ... to avoid Afghanistan once again becoming a breeding ground for terrorists who can then strike at innocent Australians both at home and abroad."
Australia had lost some of its finest and their commitment, dedication and sacrifice would not be forgotten, he said. All Australians owed the soldiers a debt of gratitude for their service and sacrifice. Air Chief Marshal Houston said the men were highly experienced soldiers who had time after time taken the fight to the enemy with courage and determination.
"I have nothing but admiration and respect for these very brave and committed Australians," he said.
The deaths come as opposition to Australia's presence in Afghanistan increases calls grow for the Government to announce a timetable for withdrawal.
The Government has so far refused to set a deadline, but Defence Minister Senator John Faulkner said yesterday he had intended to address Parliament today on the future of Australia's mission in Afghanistan. He would now wait until later in the week.
Senator Faulkner said Canberra remained committed to its mission, which was important for international stability and the safety of Australians.
"I stress to you how important it is to ensure that Afghanistan does not become again a training ground or safe haven for terrorists," he said.