Australian troops in place in Afghanistan
CANBERRA, Dec 10 (Reuters) - The final group of Australian troops have landed and are on patrol in southern Afghanistan but have not been involved in any combat, an Australian military spokesman said on Monday.
Brigadier Gary Bornholt said Australian Special Air Service (SAS) troops landed at the U.S. Marine base at Camp Rhino on Saturday and were patrolling south of Kandahar, the stronghold city surrendered last week by the Taliban.
The latest troops bring the total Australian contingent to 150 in southern Afghanistan.
"They are in Afghanistan to conduct active combat. There is no limitation on the role they can undertake ... but there has yet to be a contact between our forces and the enemy," Bornholt told reporters in the Australian capital.
The military briefing, the first since Prime Minister John Howard announced the troop commitment in October, follows heavy criticism by local media of the secrecy surrounding the Australian involvement.
The SAS force is part of the U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
The U.S. blames bin Laden for engineering the September 11 suicide air attacks on New York and Washington and targeted the Taliban for its protection of the militant and his network.
Bornholt said the involvement of Australian troops in any future peacekeeping force in Afghanistan had not been discussed.
He said Australian forces would hand over any captured Taliban or al Qaeda forces to U.S. authorities in Afghanistan without condition.
Washington wants bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar turned over to U.S. authorities if they are captured alive, but some coalition supporters have expressed concern that the captured men would face the U.S. death penalty.
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