Australian PM in Afghan pledge after troop death

Prime Minister Julia Gillard insisted Tuesday that progress was being made in Afghanistan despite the death of another Australian soldier during an encounter with insurgents.

Sergeant Todd Langley, 35, was serving with a special operations task group when he was shot in the head on Monday during a mission with troops from the Afghan National Army to clear a weapons cache.

"He died on the battlefield from his wounds," said General David Hurley, who only assumed his role as chief of the defence force on Monday following the retirement of Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.

A second soldier was wounded in the same incident, in the south of the country, and is in a serious condition.

The death brings to 28 the number of Australians killed in the conflict since 2001 -- seven of them this year.

"Twenty-eight Australians have been killed in action in Afghanistan and these men are not numbers. They are fathers, husbands, sons, brothers and mates," Hurley said.

He added that Langley, from the Sydney-based 2nd Commando regiment, was on his fifth deployment to Afghanistan and described him as an exceptionally experienced and decorated soldier.

"He was a brave and professional soldier who never took a backward step and, despite their grief, his comrades say he will continue to inspire them," he said.

Australia, a key coalition partner, has around 1,500 personnel in Afghanistan, mostly in Uruzgan province.

The United States will bring 33,000 troops home by the end of next year as part of a phased withdrawal.

But Gillard said Australian forces in Afghanistan would remain at their current levels until 2014, when they plan to hand over security to the leadership of local Afghan forces.

"These are tough days for our nation in Afghanistan... and there will be tough days to come," she said.

"Our mission is clear, our timeline is clear and we are making progress."

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