TOPICS: Loss of Lance Corporal Andrew Jones and Lieutenant Marcus Case; Afghan National Army and International Security Assistance Force.
KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Smith thanks for your time. What more do we know about the shooting of Lance Corporal Jones?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we've made no progress in terms of capturing or arresting the Afghan soldier concerned, but there's - we're in a position now to provide a slight variation on the facts as reported yesterday. What now appears to have occurred is that two Afghan soldiers were in the watch tower. One of the Afghan soldiers left the watch tower and was proceeding down the watch tower. The Lance Corporal was walking along the ground, was shot four times, it now seems, from the watch tower. The offending Afghan National Army soldier, who committed the atrocity, jumped the fence and ran and the other Afghan National soldier who was originally in the watch tower ran back up the watch tower and shot to try and - to try and restrain him.
So a slight variation on the facts, but no further update on the real issue which is, you know, what was the motivation. We're dealing here with a rogue soldier, but what was the cause of this incident which, as the Prime Minister and I said yesterday, has been very much a shock to the system.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you know whether the rogue soldier was hit by that gun fire?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're proceeding on the basis that he wasn't. He fled into the green zone and was seen jumping on a motorcycle and escaping. There's now a joint Australian/Afghan National Army operation to capture him, but I can't advise any success in that respect.
KIERAN GILBERT: You don't have - or you've done the checks, you know who the person was and that all appropriate ID checks were done, but you're not any closer to knowing whether he was a Taliban infiltrator, or whether this was the result of a fight, or a brain snap.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well all of those possibilities are there and we're not proposing to speculate on the motivation pending an exhaustive investigation which in very many respects, of course, is dependent upon the capture of the soldier concerned. But this - this - when you put it in the context of our training responsibility in Uruzgan - we're training three and a half thousand Afghan National Army soldiers from the 4th Brigade as we speak, in Uruzgan. The Afghan National Security Force is at nearly 300,000. So this is an isolated incident, but nonetheless it's a terrible incident, it's a shock to the system and we need now to make sure that the good working relationship that we have with the 4th Brigade in Uruzgan is not disturbed in any ongoing way by it.
KIERAN GILBERT: We're seeing reports this morning that the rogue soldier has been feted as a hero by the Taliban. Have you heard that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, of course you would expect that, and I think yesterday I mentioned that in addition to stealing ourselves to fatalities in the fighting season, we also have to be aware that the Taliban will use whatever propaganda efforts they can to try and undermine international community's efforts in Afghanistan. So it's, in very many respects, that old response, they would say that wouldn't they, irrespective of the facts. So we just need to work our way through that.
In the meantime, we are getting on with the job. It has been a shock to the system, but as the dust settles our soldiers on the ground and our commanders in Afghanistan are working closely with Brigadier General Khan the commander of the 4th Brigade, to capture the soldier who's committed the atrocity and of course, in the meantime, Brigadier General Khan has made it quite clear that he absolutely condemns what has occurred.
KIERAN GILBERT: Have you got any more detail on the other tragic incident of the last day or so, the Chinook crash that saw Lieutenant Marcus Sean Case killed?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah, well Lieutenant Case, of course, a terrible fatality and, again our thoughts go to his family and the family of Lance Corporal Jones. Fortunately, the other five on the Chinook are in a satisfactory condition, so no life threatening injuries there and that's very good news.
We are now proceeding on the basis that there was no enemy fire, so we need to do, again, an exhaustive investigation into the cause for that. That may be difficult because the Chinook was effectively destroyed on the ground, but we need to very carefully go through that and ascertain the possible cause or causes of the Chinook crashing. And, of course, in the first instance we'll be speaking to the five survivors, but we're very pleased that there are no lasting injuries so far as those five are concerned.
KIERAN GILBERT: Had there been problems with the Chinook leading up to this? Any other reports of malfunctions or issues with the Chinook-
STEPHEN SMITH: Not that I'm-
KIERAN GILBERT: -or have they been reliable?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Chinooks have been a very good - a very good helicopter for us, so in this rotation no and so obviously we need to do that exhaustive examination and investigation, not just to ascertain the circumstances of this incident, but also whether it holds any lessons for the future and the Chief of the Air Force from the first moment yesterday was on that case. So, that's a very important part of the process. There have been incidents with Chinooks in the past, but it has been for us a very effective part of our deployment to Afghanistan, doing good work not just for the Australian Defence Force personnel there, but also for other members of the International Security Assistance Force.
KIERAN GILBERT: The number of Australian soldiers killed is now at 26 since 2001. Can you understand why Australians might now be considering enough is enough?
STEPHEN SMITH: Every time there is a fatality it's a jolt to the Australian community and to very many members of the Australian community they say why, what is the reason, what is the purpose we're there. And as the dust settles, the government is very strongly of the view that it's in our national interest to be there. Yes we're working closely with our alliance partner, the United States, but we're also there under a United Nations mandate as part of a nearly 50 member country - international assistance force, helping to ensure that Afghanistan and the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area does not again become a breeding ground for terrorists. If, in the terrible and awful event into the future, Australians are on the receiving end of terrorist atrocities, we want to be able to say we did everything we could to avoid and prevent that.
But in the isolation of fatalities, this question is always asked and it's right and correct that members of the Australian community ask that question and every time an event like this occurs, it causes us to examine what we're doing and why we're doing it. But we, on every occasion this year, in the face of now three terrible fatalities, we come to the conclusion that we're doing the right thing in our national security interests and the right thing in the international community's interests.
KIERAN GILBERT: I know you've got to go. Let me just ask you one last question about the Chief of the Defence Force. He wraps up very soon. Are you any closer to coming out with a replacement?
STEPHEN SMITH: Oh well, he wraps up, as do the other Service Chiefs, in early July. I've said in the past that the Government's appointments and announcements will be made in June - I think it is 1 June. So we're hours and days away, not days and weeks, so in the very, very near future the Prime Minister and I will be in a position to make those announcements and appointments and we're looking very much forward to doing that.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.