By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia contradicted Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday over a deadly weekend raid in Afghanistan in search of a "rogue" soldier who killed three Australian troops, adding new strains to an increasingly uneasy international coalition.
Karzai's office condemned the raid by NATO-led and Afghan troops, during which a 70-year-old Afghan man and his son were killed, describing it as a "unilateral military operation" in breach of an agreement between Kabul and its foreign allies covering such actions.
The raid was launched after three Australian soldiers were killed last week by a rogue Afghan army sergeant who turned his weapon on his trainers, the latest in a spike in "insider" shootings in which 45 foreign troops have been killed this year.
International patience is wearing thin with the increasingly unpopular and costly war that has dragged on with few obvious signs of success since U.S.-backed foreign troops toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
The dispute between Canberra and Kabul came on the same day that New Zealand, another long-serving member of the NATO-led force, announced an advanced timetable for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.
Under current plans, most combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 but New Zealand decided to accelerate its withdrawal after three of its troops were killed by a roadside bomb last month.
Australia has been one of the staunchest members of the coalition but Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith hit back at Karzai's criticism of the raid.
"Let me be very, very clear. This was an authorized operation, it was a partnered operation, and it was conducted in accordance with our rules of engagement," Gillard said.
She told reporters Australian diplomats had gone to Karzai's palace to explain the raid.
Two other Australian troops were killed in a helicopter crash on Thursday, marking Australia's worst combat losses since the Vietnam War and prompting Gillard to return early from a South Pacific regional leaders' summit.
Smith also rejected Karzai's complaints and said the raid involved 60 Australian troops and 80 Afghan soldiers. He said the two men killed were confirmed as insurgents by Australian and Afghan forces.
"The statement which has been issued by President Karzai's palace over the weekend in Kabul that this operation was not authorized is wrong," Smith said. "This point has been made strongly by Australia's ambassador to Afghanistan to palace and presidential officials."
Pressure has been building over a long period, especially in Europe, to get troops out of Afghanistan quickly.
The Netherlands became the first NATO country to withdraw the bulk of its troops after the Dutch government collapsed in early 2010. Canada ended its unpopular mission last year.
Opinion polls say Australians overwhelmingly want their troops out of Afghanistan, although Gillard has repeatedly ruled out an early exit.
New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said the withdrawal of New Zealand's remaining 145 troops would begin next April, about six months earlier than expected, after 10 years in Afghanistan and the deaths of 10 New Zealand soldiers.
Thirty-eight Australian troops have been killed since 2001.
(Additional reporting by Gyles Beckford in WELLINGTON; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)
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