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Australia to send 450 more troops to Afghanistan

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ROD McGUIRK | April 29, 2009 03:54 AM EST | AP

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CANBERRA, Australia — Australia announced Wednesday it will increase by almost one half its troops in Afghanistan to about 1,550 as part of the U.S.-led surge of international forces to bolster the faltering fight against Taliban insurgents.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who has mostly played down prospects of increasing Australia's commitment against Afghan insurgents since taking office in 2007, said he had been persuaded to increase the deployment during discussions last week with President Barack Obama.

The deployment of 450 new forces is Rudd's first new military commitment to the Afghan war, and gives him a political stake in the outcome at a time when Australian public opinion has dipped following a string of combat deaths.

The new troops would mostly focus on training the Afghan National Army in the southern province of Uruzgan and will include a temporary eight-month deployment of 120 soldiers to enhance security around the August elections, Rudd said.

"As I make these further commitments today, I am acutely conscious of the fact that I am placing more Australians in harm's way and I fear that more Australians will lose their lives in the fight that lies ahead," Rudd said.

Ten Australians have already been killed in the conflict, four of them since November last year.

Australia is the biggest contributor to the U.S.-led coalition outside NATO.

Rudd has long called for other NATO partners to do more before Australia would consider increasing its commitment.

He noted Wednesday that Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain had all agreed to send more troops since Obama this year ordered 21,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan to bolster the record 38,000 already there.

Rudd acknowledged that the war was becoming less popular among Australians, but said Afghanistan must not be allowed to once again become a haven and training ground for international terrorists.

"Australia concurs with the United States that the current civilian and military strategy is not working," Rudd said. "If anything, security in Afghanistan is deteriorating."