4 Aug 2010

Help sought to get NZ soldiers out of Afghanistan

10:57 pm on 4 August 2010

The Defence Force has enlisted the help of coalition air forces to help get two injured New Zealand soldiers out of Afghanistan following an ambush that killed their commander.

Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell died after a roadside bomb exploded under the patrol convoy he was leading in the north-east of Bamyan province about 5pm local time on Tuesday.

The 28-year-old from Feilding becomes New Zealand's first combat death in 10 years.

The injured soldiers are understood to be Lance Corporal Matthew Ball and Private Allister Baker. One has burns to 10% of his body and cuts, while the other has cuts and a broken foot. An Afghan interpreter is being treated for minor eye injuries.

The soldiers are part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan and were on routine patrol when their convoy of two Humvees and two Toyota Hilux vehicles was attacked.

Joint forces commander Air-Vice Marshal Peter Stockwell says the ambush was in an area where there have been similar skirmishes. The patrol came under a complex and well planned co-ordinated attack involving an improvised explosive device, followed by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Vice-Marshall Stockwell says after bomb went off the soldiers left their vehicles, took cover behind a hut and returned fire for about 20 minutes.

The Defence Force is now trying to repatriate Lieutenant O'Donnell's body and transfer the wounded to Bagram air base near the capital Kabul.

Vice-Marshall Stockwell says the Kiwi Base in Bamyan is carrying out a detailed medical assessment and coalition air forces are being enlisted to get the soldiers moved to Kabul before they are treated outside Afghanistan, probably at a specialist hospital in Germany.

However, low cloud which aided the insurgents' attack has been hampering the rescue operation and moving the injured will depend on the weather, he says.

NZ committed to staying in Bamyan - PM

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key says the death of Lieutenant O'Donnell will not affect the Defence Force's commitment to Bamyan province.

Mr Key visited the province earlier this year and says the patrol was in a north-east pocket - a notorious for insurgent activity.

The Defence Force will assess its equipment, tactics and procedures but the New Zealand troops will stay on in Afghanistan, he says.

"I don't think we should cut and run from there today. I think that would do a great disservice to the thousands of New Zealanders who've served in Bamyan and who have put in so much energy, effort and commitment to get the province to a point where we can hand it over in a controlled way."

Mr Key says there has been no pressure from the United States or its allies for New Zealand to further its commitment, but the main driver has come from New Zealand personnel who do not want to leave the job half done.

The Prime Minister has spoken with Lieutenant O'Donnell's mother to express his condolences, saying she wanted him to pass on her best wishes to the families of the wounded soldiers.

Troops should stay, says father

Mark O'Donnell says it would be a waste of his son's life if New Zealand troops were to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Mr O'Donnell was speaking at Linton Military Camp in Palmerston North on Wednesday and says the soldiers should definitely stay in Bamyan province.

"The army have got a job to do there and it would be a waste of Tim's life if we pulled out now. He went there because he believed in what the army were doing, what the New Zealand Government wanted them to do over there, and you couldn't just throw the towel in now."

Mr O'Donnell says he told his son before deployment to Afghanistan that he did not want him to be a dead brave hero and says finding out about his death was a nightmare.

However, he says his son had wanted to be a soldier since childhood and it is a consolation that he died doing what he loved.

Defence Force chief Jerry Mateparae praised Lieutenant O'Donnell, saying it is no suprise that he chose to work in the most dangerous part of the province.

"It would be fair to say that he was what could be described as a free spirit. He pushed boundaries and that was very much a part of his personality."

Decorated soldier

Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell, from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, had a five-year career in the Defence Force.

In 2007 he received a Distinguished Service Decoration for valour during a riot in East Timor where he served a platoon commander.

Lieutenant O'Donnell also received a General Service Medal, an Operational Service Medal and a Timorese award, and was due to be awarded two more medals as a result of his deployment in Afghanistan.

NZ presence in Bamyan since 2003

New Zealand took over command of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan in September 2003.

About 140 New Zealanders are stationed at Kiwi Base located outside the township of Bamyan, about 200km north-west of Kabul.

Prime Minister John Key says the unrest in the north-east of Bamyan province was a driver for his decision to extend New Zealand's commitment in Afghanistan, which includes the Provincial Reconstruction Team and the SAS' work with the crisis response unit in Kabul.

Mr Key says the Government will make a decision on the SAS deployment by the end of this year.

There have been 1984 combat deaths among coalition forces in Afghanistan including 1216 from the United States, 327 from Britain, 151 from Canada and 17 from Australia.