Canberra: Australia`s Army
chief today resisted public pressure to drop charges against
three former commandos in the deaths last year of six Afghans,
as cracks appear in Australia`s support for its military
deployment in Afghanistan.
Lt Gen Ken Gillespie issued a statement after more
than 20,000 people signed an online petition calling for
charges to be withdrawn over a February 2009 raid on a
compound in southern Uruzgan province in which six Afghans,
including five children, were killed.
"The army has a responsibility to protect the
integrity and professionalism and to respect the legal
obligations inherent in our service," Gillespie said. "The
army is simply not above the law."
The controversy comes as opinion polls show public
support for Australia`s involvement in the Afghanistan
campaign is sliding.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard succumbed to pressure
from the anti-war Greens party by agreeing to allow next week
the first parliamentary debate on Australia`s military
commitment of 1,550 troops to the conflict.
Gillard relies on support from the Greens to rule
since August elections gave no party a parliamentary majority.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott`s conservative coalition
staunchly backs the government`s plans to keep Australian
troops in Afghanistan until an Afghan National Army battalion
is capable of maintaining security in Uruzgan. That training
mission is expected to take between two and four years.
The Defence Department announced last month that the
trio face multiple charges including manslaughter, dangerous
conduct and failing to comply with a lawful general order.
Two of the soldiers have blamed an insurgent for the
deaths and said they will defend themselves in military
courts-martial. The third soldier has made no public comment.