SYDNEY (AFP) – Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made a surprise visit to troops serving in Afghanistan, telling them that it was time they came home.
Rudd, who the Labor Party reinstalled as leader four weeks ago ahead of this year's election, made the trip Saturday with his wife Therese Rein to troops in southern Uruzgan province.
"On behalf of a grateful Australian nation I am here to say to you, the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, thank you for a job well done," Rudd told soldiers at the Tarin Kowt base.
"I say... thank you, and it's about time we brought you home."
Rein, the first wife of an Australian prime minister to visit a war zone, was briefed on aid work and said she was proud to meet the soldiers.
Australia is preparing to wind down its deployment to Afghanistan after entering in late 2001, in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States.
"When the flag of Australia is brought down for the last time a few months from now, you will have been a part of history," Rudd told the troops.
Canberra has had some 1,550 in the war-torn country but the bulk will be brought home by the end of the year and the Tarin Kowt base handed over to Afghan authorities.
About 300 Australian military personnel will remain in the country after that, as advisers and trainers based in Kabul and Kandahar.
Forty Australian soldiers have died in the conflict, the latest a special forces soldier who was killed by small arms fire in June.
One soldier told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he was "very honoured" that Rudd, who is under pressure to call an election, had made the visit.
"He's actually taken the time out of his very busy schedule to come and do that for us, it's fantastic, 100 percent support from Australia... makes you a very proud Aussie," he said.
Australia has said it will continue to provide assistance and training to Afghan local forces beyond 2013 and has left open the possibility of a continuing role for special forces beyond the end of their current mission in 2014.