Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australian special forces continue to back the U.S. military's Operation Anaconda against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, a reflection of the broader political support Australia has given Washington in its campaign against terrorism.
Australian Defense spokesman Brigadier Paul Retter said Australian SAS (Special Air Services) members have been providing "special reconnaissance and direct action support to U.S. ground forces."
He told a media briefing the SAS troops were deployed south of the battle zone to prevent enemy fighters from fleeing in that direction.
Australian troops were also heavily involved in last week's rescue of around 36 U.S. soldiers, 11 of them seriously wounded, who were trapped by enemy fire after two helicopters were shot down by enemy fire.
Australians in hidden mountain positions directed U.S. fighter planes in strikes against waves of attacking albQaeda fighters, and others took part in the eventual extrication of the trapped Americans.
"The combined actions of the Australian patrol and U.S. air power was devastatingly effective and has been acknowledged by U.S. commanders as being critical to the survival of those U.S. soldiers," SAS commander Brig. Duncan Lewis said during an earlier press briefing.
About 150 SAS troops are in Afghanistan, some two-thirds of them involved in Operation Anaconda, which began on March 1 and has seen U.S. and Afghan forces pitted against holdouts of the Taliban militia and its albQaeda ally.
No Australian fatalities have been reported during the operation, which has cost the lives of eight U.S. servicemen in total.
The SAS men are part of the 1,550-strong Australian contribution to the campaign against terror following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
In his address this week marking the six-month anniversary of those attacks, President Bush highlighted Australia's strong support and contribution to the effort.
"On the day before September 11, I met with Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, who spoke of the common beliefs and shared affection of our two countries," he said.
"We could not have known that bond was about to be proven again in war, and we could not have known its human cost."
Bush also cited the case of an Australian SAS sergeant who was killed in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan last month.
"This young man and many like him have not let us down," Bush said of Sgt. Andrew Russell, who left behind a wife and 11-day-old daughter.
While most of America's European allies are voicing reluctance to follow the U.S. into a further phase of the anti-terror campaign that could target Iraq, Australia has expressed support.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said earlier this week Australia would support the ousting of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"We would like to see Saddam Hussein overthrown and a more democratic and more reasonable government put in place. We would like to see a government that doesn't continue with the policy of developing weapons of mass destruction."
Downer added that diplomatic means - attempts by the U.N. to force Baghdad to accept a return of weapons inspectors - should be exhausted first if the effort is to win the backing of countries in the region.
A former Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, has warned that Australia could become a terrorist target if it was seen as being too close to the U.S.
But Australian Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, said "no specific terrorist threat of terrorism within Australia has been identified."
Nonetheless, parliament is considering a range of new anti-terror legislation, including controversial measures that would allow the government to ban organizations and give intelligence agencies the power to detain suspects incommunicado for 48 hours, without legal representation.
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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