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Australia stands by Afghan war despite 17th death

world Updated: Jul 10, 2010 10:01 IST

Australia's new leader Julia Gillard voiced her commitment to the Afghan war on Saturday after the country lost its 17th soldier in the conflict, just weeks before she is expected to call elections.

The 23-year-old was killed and another soldier was wounded after they hit an improvised explosive device in Uruzgan province's Chora Valley shortly after midnight Australian time (1400 GMT) Defence Minister John Faulkner said.

An experienced serviceman on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, the soldier was rushed to the base hospital at Tarin Kowt but was pronounced dead on arrival, Faulkner said.

"Australia has now lost 17 of our finest soldiers in Afghanistan," he said.

Six Australian soldiers have died in the conflict in a little over a month, increasing pressure on the centre-left Labor government as it prepares to go to the polls.

Gillard deposed former prime minister Kevin Rudd in a lightning coup just two weeks ago in a bid to salvage the party's slumping fortunes, and she acknowledged Saturday that questions were growing about the unpopular war.

"There will be Australians on Saturday who are asking themselves in the face of this loss in Afghanistan, why as a country we continue to pursue our mission there," she said.

"We pursue that mission because Afghanistan has been a safe haven for terrorists, for terrorists who have reaped acts of violence against Australians in 9/11 and in Bali. And we are determined to pursue our mission there."

Gillard, Australia's first female leader, was speaking ahead of a funeral for one of three Australian commandos killed in southern Afghanistan last month in a helicopter crash, and she said it was a "tragic" time for the nation.

"I believe Australians, whilst mourning these losses and are very upset about the news overnight, will understand our continuing determination," she said.

Faulkner, who has announced he will leave the defence portfolio after the election, agreed with the prime minister that "steady progress" was being made and said Australia would draw down its troops within two to four years.

"I obviously have acknowledged that the progress is not as fast as some would like to see, but I certainly believe that there has been a change in momentum in Afghanistan," he said.

Australia has about 1,550 troops in Uruzgan province, after last year sending 450 reinforcements, but has resisted calls from Washington to provide more.