SAS interpreters win NZ reprieve

Six Afghan interpreters who worked alongside Victoria Cross holder Willie Apiata and other New Zealand SAS soldiers will be resettled in New Zealand, but there are still fears for the safety of other workers including one who narrowly escaped execution at the hands of the Taliban.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse has agreed to relocate the six interpreters within three to four months in recognition of their support for the SAS (Special Air Service) between 2009 and 2011.

Ten of their family members will also be resettled, probably in Hamilton or Palmerston North.

The men are believed to have helped in high-profile missions including the defence of the Afghan Presidential Palace in January 2010 - during which Corporal Apiata was famously photographed - and an operation in Kabul a year later in which SAS soldier Corporal Doug Grant was killed.

Mr Woodhouse said yesterday: "It's felt that the interpreters who worked side by side with our soldiers and in plain view of the public were exposed to a special degree of risk that warranted the offer that was made by the New Zealand Government.

"They'll be great New Zealanders ... and I think we've done the right thing by them."

In all, 45 interpreters have been offered resettlement along with 100 family members. Two more applications are being considered.

There were fears for one of these applicants, a 27-year-old known as Hamid, after it was revealed yesterday that he had been kidnapped and tortured by insurgents for three days before escaping in December.

Kabul-based journalist John Stephenson told Radio New Zealand that Hamid had received threats from Taliban members immediately after New Zealand forces withdrew last year, and was kidnapped weeks later.

Labour and the Greens demanded that the Government fast-track his application.

Mr Woodhouse said he was seeking more information on Hamid's work with New Zealand's Provincial Reconstruction Team.

He said the Government had been generous in relocating nearly 150 Afghans, while rejecting only five applications.

Prime Minister John Key said that those who worked in Afghan communities with New Zealand troops were "widely recognised" and at greater risk.

"Not every person who was assigned to the New Zealand operation ... had that level of profile."

The six SAS interpreters were not originally considered for resettlement because they fell outside Cabinet criteria. Interpreters must have worked with the Defence Force within the last two years and be deemed at-risk because of their association with foreign forces.

Some of the group told the Herald last year that they feared for their lives. An interpreter known as Mohammad said he slept with a pistol under his pillow after a warning notice was nailed to his door by insurgents.

This notice was signed by a Taliban commander and said he had committed "abominable and disgraceful acts as translator and spy".

- by Isaac Davison of the NZ Herald

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