The Afghan National Army sergeant who allegedly shot and killed three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan has been captured, Defence force chief General David Hurley says.
“We now expect him to stand trial for murder,” General Hurley told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate were killed in the so-called green on blue attack on August 29 last year inside a patrol base 20km north of Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan province.
The three men died and two other diggers were injured when Afghan National Army (ANA) sergeant Hekmatullah allegedly fired 10 to 15 automatic rounds at Australian soldiers who were playing cards inside the base.
He was apprehended in Pakistan by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in February and recently deported to Afghanistan.
If convicted, Hekmatullah could face the death penalty.
General Hurley said the news was “bittersweet” for the families of the three soldiers killed.
“On the one hand, there is a great sense of relief, but it will not change history,” he said.
General Hurley said the timing was particularly sensitive, given the recent anniversary of the soldiers’ deaths.
He extended his sympathy to the families of the fallen soldiers and asked that their privacy be respected.
He praised the authorities involved in capturing the accused man, including Australian Defence Force members, Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Defence Intelligence Organisation, Australian Signals Directorate and Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation.
General Hurley confirmed Hekmatullah could face the death penalty under Afghan law.
Pakistani authorities advised Australia in February it had Hekmatullah in custody.
When asked why it took so long for him to be returned to Afghanistan, General Hurley said that was a matter for the Pakistani authorities.
“I think they were just working their way through to find both a process for this handover to occur and when would be the appropriate time,” he said.
It would have been inappropriate and possibly detrimental for Australia to reveal his capture in February while the Pakistan and Afghan governments were negotiating transfer arrangements.
General Hurley said Hekmatullah’s capture drew a line under the four insider attacks on Australian soldiers in Afghanistan in recent years.
“Those responsible for the deaths of seven Australian soldiers and who wounded another 10 have been captured or killed and no longer pose a threat to our people,” he said.
“We have been quite determined in our efforts to pursue those who have murdered and wounded our people and we will continue to cooperate with Afghan authorities as they prosecute the case.”
Some 40 Australian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.