3:30 pm

CANBERRA - The first contingent of 30 Australian elite troops is on its way to the Persian Gulf to aid in the US-led strikes on Afghanistan.

"The advance party of the SAS (Special Air Service) that are going to join the coalition effort in Afghanistan left Perth earlier today," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told reporters.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Helen Clark would not comment today on whether New Zealand SAS troops had also been deployed.

The Australian troops, part of a group of 150 elite soldiers promised five weeks ago for the US-led fight against terrorism, are expected to arrive in the Persian Gulf within days, with another 120 to follow in about a week, Howard said.

"This is of course a special force commitment that could be involved in...direct action against some of the hard-core terrorist groups, the pursuit and capture of which is the prime goal of the coalition operation in Afghanistan," Howard added.

The prime minister said the troops would initially be based "in the Gulf region", with further deployment to be decided by Australian commanders in discussion with the US military.

"There is not to be a limit on their involvement," he said.

Australia has promised to deploy 1,550 military personnel - including about 150 SAS troops, four fighter aircraft, three frigates and two refuelling aircraft - to join the US-led action in Afghanistan.

Howard said while the military campaign was going "extremely well", supporters of the US-led coalition needed to live up to their commitment to send troops or other military aid to Afghanistan.

"It is important to remember that...the prime objective is still the pursuit of (Osama) bin Laden and al Qaeda, their apprehension and destruction or bringing to account and that that still remains an unrealised objective," Howard said.

"The need for special force presence, not only from Australia but also most particularly from the United States and others is still there," he added.

Canada has said it may not deploy its promised 1,000 troops to Afghanistan after at least one faction in Afghanistan's Northern Alliance objected to the deployment of British troops in the war-torn country.


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