KABUL/CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia suffered its worst combat losses since the Vietnam War when five troops were killed in Afghanistan, officials said on Thursday, prompting Prime Minister Julia Gillard to return home early from a regional Pacific leaders’ conference.
Officials from the Australian Defence Force and the NATO-led coalition said three Australians had been killed in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday by an Afghan wearing a soldier’s uniform, bringing to 45 the number of NATO-led coalition troops killed in rogue shootings this year.
Australian officials later announced another two troops had died in a helicopter crash in the south on Thursday.
“This is news so truly shocking that it’s going to feel for many Australians like a physical blow,” an emotional Gillard told reporters in the Cook Islands, where she was attending a forum of Pacific islands leaders.
Gillard said she would cut short her visit and return to Australia later on Thursday for briefings on the deaths.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to lead a U.S. government team to the 16-member forum from Friday.
The alarming rise in the number of rogue shootings and other attacks has increased pressure on coalition members to fast-track withdrawal plans.
Under the current timetable, most foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, handing security responsibility to their Afghan counterparts.
Opinion polls in Australia say Australians overwhelmingly want their troops out of Afghanistan, although Gillard ruled out any early exit.
“We are there for a purpose and we will see that purpose through,” Gillard said.
Australia’s neighbour New Zealand said last week it would accelerate the withdrawal of its troops after three more were killed by a roadside bomb.
Australian and Afghan forces are hunting for a man in an Afghan army uniform who shot and killed the three Australian soldiers at a patrol base in Uruzgan province, where around 1,500 Australian troops are based.
Fifteen coalition troops have been killed in similar incidents this month alone.
Australian Defence Force Air Marshal Mark Binskin told reporters in Canberra the gunman used an automatic weapon at close range.
Binskin said the other two Australians, both special forces soldiers, were killed when their helicopter was attempting to land during an operation in neighbouring Helmand province.
He said there was no sign the accident was caused by enemy action but refused to give further details.
The deaths marked Australia’s worst day in the war in Afghanistan, which it joined in late 2001. A total of 38 Australian troops have been killed there since the war began.
NATO-led forces have increased security to try to counter the increase in insider shootings, including requiring soldiers to carry loaded weapons at all times on bases.
U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey visited Kabul last week to discuss the worrying increase in rogue shootings. U.S. President Barack Obama also expressed his “deep concern” over the insider attacks.
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for many of the incidents as evidence of their ability to infiltrate Afghan security forces, raising worrying questions about the readiness of Afghan forces to take over.
Afghanistan’s government said last week it would re-examine the files of 350,000 soldiers and police to help curb rogue shootings of NATO personnel.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor and Amie Ferris-Rotman in KABUL and James Grubel in CANBERRA; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)