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Australian PM visits Afghanistan

world Updated: Oct 03, 2010 08:39 IST

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard met the chief of international forces in Afghanistan and vowed support for the US-led mission in a surprise visit to troops on her first overseas trip as leader.

Gillard dropped in on Australian soldiers at the southern Uruzgan base of Tarin Kowt on her way to official meetings in Europe and received briefings about the situation on the ground from local commanders, her office said.

She shared a meal and watched a football match with the troops, and paid tribute to the 21 who have died fighting insurgents since 2001 -- five of them in the past three months.

"While there are significant security, development and governance challenges ahead, Australians are making a difference in Afghanistan," her office said in a statement Sunday about the trip.

Gillard, Australia's first female leader, went on to Kabul for talks with General David Petraeus, commander of international forces, on progress in the troubled country, before meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"General Petraeus confirmed that all elements of the US-led surge in Afghanistan were now in place and was being given time to complete its mission," Gillard's office said.

"Ms Gillard underscored Australia's intention to continue working with the Afghan Government to help meet its objectives to improve security, governance and development across the country, and reiterated Australia's expectations of the Afghan Government in the process," it added.

The stop was part of Gillard's first overseas trip as prime minister, which will also see her meet FIFA president Sepp Blatter in Zurich on Australia's 2022 World Cup bid.

She will then travel to Brussels for talks about the Afghan war with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO, ahead of the three-day ASEM summit of Asian and European leaders.

Australia has about 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, mostly training Afghan soldiers in Uruzgan, and Gillard's government has committed to a parliamentary debate on the conflict.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the chief of the armed forces, has estimated that Australian soldiers will be ready to withdraw from the country within two to four years.