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Australia begins security transition for 1,550 troops in Afghanistan's Uruzgan

SYDNEY -- Australia said Tuesday it had begun to transition security responsibility for the restive Afghan province of Uruzgan to local forces, a process which is expected to take 12 to 18 months.

A ceremony attended by Australia's ambassador in the southern province's capital Tarin Kot marked the beginning of the handover in Uruzgan, where the bulk of Australia's 1,550 troops are based, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

“The start of transition in Uruzgan reflects the progress made by Afghan, Australian and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military and civilian teams in training and mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces and strengthening security and development,” she said in a statement.

“It is a welcome sign transition in Uruzgan is on track for completion over the next 12 to 18 month period.”

Australia announced earlier this year that it would begin withdrawing its forces in 2013, quicker than planned due to significant security gains and as Canberra has faced increased pressure over the long-running Afghan campaign.

The latest announcement comes two weeks after a Special Forces soldier was killed in Uruzgan, bringing to 33 the number of Australians lost in the war.

At that time, Gillard said Australia was engaged in an important mission in Afghanistan, where it first deployed troops in late 2001, and would continue to work to ensure the country never again became a safe haven for terrorists.

In Tuesday's statement released jointly with Defense Minister Stephen Smith and Foreign Minister Bob Carr, Gillard said Australia would collaborate closely with its Afghan and ISAF partners in Uruzgan during transition.

Afghan National Security Forces will assume full security responsibility at the end of the transition, she added.

Foreign troops have been in Afghanistan since a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.

A close ally of the United States, Australia's Afghan deployment began in 2001 before Canberra pulled out, only to redeploy to the arena in 2005.

Australia's 1,550 troops in Afghanistan are focused on training and mentoring Afghan National Army soldiers in Uruzgan.

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