SAS

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Aussie SAS troops leave for war on terrorism An advance guard of crack Australian troops left for the war against terrorism on Wednesday.

Prime Minister John Howard said about 30 Special Air Service (SAS) troops left Perth for the Persian Gulf, where they would be based during the military operation against the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Another 120 SAS soldiers would follow in about a week.

The United States-led military operation has driven the Taliban out of the Afghan capital Kabul but the Taliban say they have lost track of Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr Howard said the early successes did not mean Australian troops were not needed.

"Although the military operation overall is going very well for the Americans and for the coalition in Afghanistan, the prime objective is still the pursuit of bin Laden and al Qaeda, their apprehension or destruction," he said.

"That still remains an unrealised objective." Mr Howard and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley farewelled the troops more than four weeks ago, during the election campaign, but Mr Howard said the departure had been delayed by negotiations about the Gulf base.

He said there was no indication whether Australia would scale down its commitment to the campaign, which includes RAAF fighters, refuelling planes and warships.

"It's premature to speculate as to what ... impact (the military successes) will have on the time that our people are going to be over there," he said.

"It has gone extremely well and everybody will, of course, welcome the possibility that there may be a shorter involvement." But former United Nations weapons inspector Richard Butler said while the coalition seemed to be on the verge of cleaning the Taliban out of Afghanistan, the war on terrorism could move to Iraq.

He warned it risked becoming a conflict between Muslims and Christians.

"We must avoid that," Mr Butler said.

Australian Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja said it was disappointing the government had committed troops to the military action but not a peacekeeping force.

"Australia should be as willing to help in building Afghanistan as a democratic, united nation, as it was to join the war. Otherwise the revenge killings will continue and extremist forces will foster again," she said.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross hopes to transport the bodies of Australian cameraman Harry Burton and three other foreign journalists killed this week in Afghanistan to Pakistan tomorrow.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer extended his condolences to Mr Burton's family and said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was providing consular assistance to relatives.

"The Australian High Commission in Islamabad is liaising closely with local authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Reuters about arrangements for transporting Mr Burton's body to Pakistan," a DFAT spokeswoman said.