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Australia apologizes to Kabul for soldiers’ slurs

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CANBERRA, Australia >> Australia’s defense minister said Friday he has apologized to his Afghan counterpart for racist comments made by Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan that were aired on social and broadcast media.

Seven Network News on Thursday night broadcast expletive-laden video footage posted on Facebook that included soldiers using racist terms among themselves to describe Afghans.

They used several derogatory terms to refer to Afghans. One solider described them as “smelly locals.”

Australian soldiers are heard cheering and laughing as an Afghan man, described as a “scared … mufti,” is videotaped fleeing a bridge explosion.

Defense Minister Stephen Smith said he had telephoned Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak late Thursday to apologize and advise that disciplinary action was likely. Smith said Wardak replied that he did not expect the incident would hurt Australia’s standing in his country.

“This action by a small number of people is appalling,” Smith told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio Friday. “I condemn it absolutely.”

“There is no place for our diggers on the ground in Afghanistan to engage in cultural abuse, to engage in racial abuse,” he added, using a colloquial term for Australian soldiers.

The highest level of the Australian military would conduct the investigation and soldiers associated with the offensive postings could be recalled from Afghanistan, Smith said.

Afghan Ambassador Amanullah Jayhoon said Friday that he had accepted an assurance from Australian Defense Chief, Air Marshall Angus Houston, that the military would take appropriate action.

“It is very distressing, shocking and appalling, but I am sure that this does not represent the whole Australian forces’ professionalism,” Jayhoon told The Associated Press.

“The problem is that it will be used against Australian soldiers and against the Afghan government,” he said. “This sort of disrespectful behavior will endanger the lives of others.”

Houston promised swift action once the Australian military had determined the facts.

“What was on those videos particularly disturbed me. It’s unacceptable, inappropriate and just does not conform with our values in the Defense Force,” he said.

“This flies in the face of what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan. We are trying to win the hearts and the minds of the people,” he added.

Houston said he hoped that the Afghan people appreciated that a minority was responsible for this “act of insensitivity and act of stupidity.”

“This is not good for us in Afghanistan. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “I’m deeply embarrassed about what’s happened.”

Neil James, executive director of the independent security think tank Australian Defense Association, said he visited Australian troops based in southern Uruzgan province in December and is certain the Facebook postings were the work of a minority.

“Not only are they unprofessional and disgraceful in themselves, but in a counterinsurgency war, it is very important that you carry the local population with you and what they’ve in effect done is give the enemy propaganda to use against us in the worst possible way,” James said.

With 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, Australia is the 10th largest contributor to the U.S.-led war there and the largest outside NATO.

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