Taliban kill Australian commando in Afghanistan

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CANBERRA, Oct 25 (Reuters) An Australian special forces soldier has been killed fighting Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan, Australian defence officials said today.

The soldier was shot and killed while taking part in Coalition military operations against Taliban bases in a valley in Uruzgan province, the Australian Defence Force commander told reporters in Canberra.

''This is an operation where we are taking the fight to the Taliban,'' said Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston. ''It is absolutely essential that we get in there and deal with them in their sanctuaries, and that's the sort of operation that was under way when this happened.'' Houston refused to reveal details of the clash or which Coalition forces were involved as the operation was continuing.

The soldier was the second Australian killed in a fortnight in the restive province. His death comes amidst campaigning for a Nov.

24 national election marked by popular opposition to Canberra's military role in both the Iraq war and Afghanistan.

Conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who this week promised to review the role of Australian combat troops in Iraq as he battles polls showing near-certain defeat, said the SAS commando had died ''serving the cause of liberty and freedom''.

''He died on active service in a just cause and in a cause to which the Australian government and many other countries around the world remain very firmly committed,'' Howard said.

Australia, a close US ally, was one of the first nations to commit troops in late 2001 to the US-led war to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda militants from Afghanistan. It also has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq.

An Australian soldier died on October 8 when his armoured vehicle was demolished by a Taliban roadside bomb, also in Uruzgan, where almost 1,000 Australian soldiers are working with Dutch troops on security and reconstruction.

His death was Australia's first in direct military action in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Howard's Labor opponent, Kevin Rudd, has pledged to withdraw combat troops from Iraq but keep soldiers in Afghanistan. Opinion polls show Australians are widely opposed to both wars and have begun to lose faith in Howard's tough security stance, which has won him previous elections.

Houston said the SAS soldier had been on patrol when he was severely wounded by small-arms fire. A Coalition medical team flown in by helicopter evacuated him to hospital but was unable to save him.

''Unfortunately despite the best efforts of his mates and the aeromedical team the soldier succumbed to his wounds,'' he said.

Taliban insurgents have been intensifying their attacks over the past 20 months, the bloodiest period since the US-led troops overthrew the Taliban government in Kabul in late 2001.

Last month, three Australians were wounded during a firefight with Taliban forces near Tarin Kowt, also in Uruzgan province.

REUTERS SYU PM1800

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