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Australia pulls troops out of Afghanistan

By Grant Holloway

Australian troops in Afghanistan were closely involved in the Anaconda campaign

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For the first time ever, Australia has issued a terror warning after arresting a man suspected of having ties to al Qaeda. Channel 7 Australia's Geof Parry reports (November 19)
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A CNN Special Report by Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa 

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia is pulling its troops out of Afghanistan and limiting its commitment to any action against Iraq in the wake of an increased terror threat on home soil.

Australia has 150 Special Air Services troops on the ground in Afghanistan and more than 1,000 other armed forces operating in the Persian Gulf in support roles for the war against terror.

The elite troops, who have been operating in Afghanistan since November 27, 2001, are expected to be back in Australia for the Christmas holiday season.

During their time in Afghanistan one Australian soldier was killed and another badly injured by land mines.

The Australian troops were closely involved in the U.S.-led Operation Anaconda in March guiding multiple air strikes to prevent al Qaeda fighters overrunning survivors of a U.S. helicopter crash.

Royal Australian Air Force tanker aircraft in Kyrgyzstan and fighter aircraft in Diego Garcia will also be withdrawn.

Two navy frigates and two maritime surveillance aircraft will continue however to operate with coalition forces in the Persian Gulf enforcing trade sanctions on Iraq.

New Zealand, which also has elite troops in Afghanistan, said Thursday that it had no plans at this stage to withdraw its soldiers from the region.

In a speech on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister John Howard indicated that any Australian commitment to military action against Iraq would likely be restricted to a small number of special forces troops, such as in Afghanistan.

He said Australian military personnel had been attached to the American military command for some time and contingency planning concerning an Australian commitment had been discussed.

"It has been made clear that any Australian contribution in a new theater, such as Iraq, would need to be within our resources and not detract from immediate defense and security needs," Howard said.

"As a broad indicator, it has been noted that our contribution to operations in an around Afghanistan has met that basic test."

The British government on Wednesday revealed that it had received a formal request from the U.S. to provide troops to assist in any action against Iraq, but stressed that did not mean a war was inevitable. (U.S. seeks allies)

The Australian government has come under increasing pressure to re-focus its military forces on protecting against terrorist threats on the home front, particularly after the October 12 Bali bombings.

Those blasts, which have been blamed by Western governments on an al Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian terror group called Jemaah Islamiyah, killed more than 180 people, including around 90 Australians.

Stepped-up security

Opera House guard
The Sydney Opera House would be a high-profile target for a terrorist attack

And on Tuesday, the Australian government issued a warning saying it had received credible information that Australia could be subject to a terror attack by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Australia was singled out as a terror target in a tape released last week by bin Laden because of its strong support for the U.S.-led war on terror in Afghanistan.

Acting Attorney-General Chris Ellison said details of the threat were scarce but it was being taken seriously. (Australian terror alert)

But Prime Minister Howard said Thursday the Afghanistan troops were not being rushed home to help bolster the domestic security effort.

"We don't really need people of that high level of skill in Afghanistan now and that's the principal reason why we're going to begin withdrawing them from the end of this month," he told television viewers.

"They're not, incidentally, being brought home to bolster the home security effort."

Australia is now stepping up its security around popular landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House, as well as infrastructure including the Lucas Heights nuclear facility in suburban Sydney.

No additional security measures will be taken at Australia's defense bases, however, as those facilities have been on a state of heightened alert since the September 11 terror attacks in the United States.

New Zealand warning

But measures will be taken so those bases can rapidly move to a higher state of alert if required, according to a statement released by the Defense Department on Thursday.

News of the Australian threat came just hours after a British-born man appeared in court in the Western Australian city of Perth.

The defendant, 49-year-old Jack Roche, is accused of planning bomb attacks on two Israeli diplomatic posts in the country. He denied the charges. (Man charged on bomb plot)

Meanwhile, New Zealand's foreign ministry has issued an upgraded warning to its citizens travelling to Australia, as well as Europe and North America.

It is the first time these regions had been included in a travel warning to New Zealanders.

About 700,000 New Zealanders visit Australia every year.

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