New Zealand's elite commandos will pull out of Afghanistan in March, the nation's prime minister said Thursday, ending the Special Air Service troops' eight-year engagement in the war against insurgents.
Prime Minister John Key said the 35-troop contingent will leave the Afghan capital, Kabul, after spending the past two years training the city's Crisis Response Unit soldiers to take the lead in securing the city.
Two SAS soldiers were killed in action this year, the country's first combat deaths in a decade.
"I deeply regret the loss of our soldiers, but I do not regret our commitment to operations in Afghanistan," Key said in a statement. "You made a difference. It's time to come home."
"Thanks to the SAS's efforts, the (Afghani) CRU is widely considered to be one of the best trained and most professional units operating in Afghanistan today," he added.
Early in the deployment, some 70 commandos were operating against Afghanistan insurgents in the south of the country. Cpl. Willie Apiata was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery under fire there in 2003 _ the first such award to a New Zealand soldier in more than 40 years.
The pullout comes despite appeals from U.S. commanders and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the elite soldiers' deployment to be extended. Clinton made the request during a rare visit to New Zealand in late 2010.
New Zealand has 140 troops posted to Bamyan province, northeast of Kabul, where a Provincial Reconstruction Team has been helping build security and governance since 2003. The troops in Bamyan are due to end their deployment in 2014.