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Australia mourns as five die hours apart in Afghanistan

SYDNEY -- Australia on Thursday mourned the deaths of five of its soldiers in Afghanistan, three killed by an Afghan army colleague, in the nation's deadliest hours of combat since the Vietnam War.

The Australians were killed in two separate incidents just hours apart late Wednesday and early Thursday.

The first incident took place at a base in Uruzgan province, when a man in an Afghan army uniform opened fire on Australian soldiers, killing three and wounding two, according to Air Marshal Mark Binskin, vice chief of the Australian Defense Force. Hours later, two Australian soldiers died and a crew member was wounded when their helicopter rolled over while landing in Helmand province.

“In a war of so many losses, this is our single worst day in Afghanistan,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said. “Indeed, I believe this is the most losses in combat since the days of the Vietnam War and the Battle of Long Tan. This is news so truly shocking that it's going to feel for many Australians like a physical blow.”

Eighteen Australian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Long Tan in 1966. Tom Vasey, a spokesman for the Australian War Memorial, said five Australian soldiers were killed in a 14-hour period in 1971 during the Battle of Nui Le, making that the last time so many died so quickly in a combat zone.

The Australians were relaxing at the base when the assailant began shooting at close range with an automatic weapon, Binskin said. Soldiers at the base returned fire, but the shooter scaled a fence and escaped.

The Australians tried to revive their comrades, but the wounds proved fatal, he said. One of the wounded soldiers sustained a serious gunshot wound and was evacuated to another base for further treatment. He is in satisfactory condition. The other was treated at the scene.

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