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Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Page: 799

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Defence) (12:31 PM) —I seek leave to make a statement on civilian casualties in Oruzgan province in Afghanistan.

Leave granted.

Senator FAULKNER —I thank the Senate for its courtesy to enable me to make this statement. Yesterday evening, 22 February, the Chief of the Defence Force informed me that he had received reports of an incident in Oruzgan province that had tragically resulted in a large number of civilian casualties. According to a statement issued by ISAF commander General McChrystal, on Sunday, 21 February, an air strike had been conducted against a convoy of vehicles suspected of carrying Taliban insurgents. According to the COMISAF statement, when ISAF and Afghan ground forces arrived at the scene they found four women and one child amongst the casualties from the strike. A number of the injured were taken to medical facilities in Tarin Kowt. While the number of people injured or killed is not yet reliably known, it appears to be a very significant number—27, according to ISAF estimates.

CDF has informed me that current reporting indicates no Australian Defence Force personnel serving in Afghanistan were involved in requesting or carrying out the air strike. However, I can confirm that ADF medical personnel did provide specialist medical support on board the aeromedical evacuation helicopters which provided immediate medical assistance both at the incident scene and at the military hospital in Tarin Kowt.

This incident will be the subject of an ISAF investigation in partnership with the Afghan authorities. I can assure the Senate that I will take a very close interest in the investigation. At this stage I am not in a position to provide further information about the facts of this matter, and it would not be appropriate for me to do so with the investigation pending.

I can assure the Senate that the Australian Defence Force deploys with rules of engagement designed to ensure they minimise loss of life, especially civilian casualties. As would be expected, these rules of engagement comply completely with Australia’s domestic and international legal obligations. The ADF also takes all appropriate steps to ensure its operations do not put the lives of civilians or noncombatants in jeopardy.

The loss of innocent lives in incidents such as these is a tragedy. It is particularly distressing that this has occurred at a time when coalition forces are putting so much effort into Operation Moshtarak in neighbouring Helmand province. These efforts are aimed at protecting the Afghan population, reversing the Taliban’s momentum and creating the space to develop Afghan security and governance capacity. A key objective of Australian and international forces is to create a secure environment in which Afghan and foreign civilians alike can go about their daily life. I have to say that this objective is undermined by tragic events such as this.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my, the government’s and I know all senators’ sincere condolences to the families of those civilians killed in this tragic event, as well as wishing a speedy recovery to those that have been injured.