SYDNEY // Australia yesterday mourned the deaths of five of its soldiers in Afghanistan, in the nation's deadliest hours of combat since the Vietnam War.
The Australians were killed in two separate incidents just hours apart late Wednesday and early yesterday.
The first incident took place at a base in Uruzgan province, when a man in an Afghan army uniform opened fire on Australian soldiers, killing three and wounding two, according to Air Marshal Mark Binskin, vice chief of the Australian Defence Force. Hours later, two Australian soldiers died and a crew member was wounded when their helicopter rolled over while landing in Helmand province.
Eighteen Australian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Long Tan in 1966. Tom Vasey, a spokesman for the Australian War Memorial, said five Australian soldiers were killed in a 14-hour period in 1971 during the Battle of Nui Le, making that the last time so many died so quickly in a combat zone.
The Australians were relaxing at the base when the assailant began shooting at close range with an automatic weapon, Mr Binskin said. Soldiers at the base returned fire, but the shooter scaled a fence and escaped.
The Afghan soldier accused of the shooting is named Hekmatullah, and was working as a night guard at the Afghan army base where the international troops had stopped to spend the night, Afghan officials said. Hekmatullah fired at the Australians as they entered the base in Uruzgan province's Chora district, said Abdulhameed Hameed, an Afghan army commander in the south.
Australian and Afghan soldiers were hunting for the killer yesterday, Mr Binskin said. He said the shooter's motive was unknown.
Thirty-eight Australian soldiers have been killed in the Afghanistan war. Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan and makes the largest military contribution of any country outside Nato. The Australian soldiers' primary focus is training an Afghan battalion to take responsibility for security in restive Uruzgan.
Insider attacks, in which Afghan security forces or insurgents posing as soldiers or police fire on their coalition allies, have been rising over the past year and have surged even higher in the last few weeks. Including the latest strike, there have been at least 34 such attacks so far this year, killing 45 coalition members, mostly Americans.
In response to the spike in killings, the US has begun using "guardian angels" - armed Nato service members who are assigned to watch over any gatherings of Nato troops and Afghan soldiers. Mr Binskin said Australia also uses guardian angels, but he didn't know whether such a soldier was in place during Wednesday's shooting.
Australian prime minister Julia Gillard acknowledged the incident was a blow for relations between the two nations' soldiers.
"These insider incidents are very difficult for trust between Australian soldiers and the Afghans that they train. They are corrosive of trust," she said.