A self-styled sheikh has been arrested in Australia over letters sent to widows of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, accusing their partners of murder, as Canberra mulls an early withdrawal from the troubled country.
The Iranian-born Muslim spiritual leader, who calls himself Mufti Sheikh Haron, was charged with sending hate mail to families of seven Australian soldiers killed fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan over a two-year period.
"I feel bad that you have lost your son but I don't feel bad that a murderer of innocent civilians has lost his life," Haron allegedly wrote to the family of one Australian commando killed in January, the Daily Telegraph newspaper said on Thursday.
Haron denied the charges after his arrest. But New South Wales state Premier Nathan Rees said on Thursday that if proven true, the letters were an "evil act of cowardice."
Australia, a close U.S. ally, has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, including special forces, and is the largest non-NATO troop contributor. Ten Australian soldiers have died fighting alongside Dutch forces in southern Oruzgan province.
Australia's Defence Minister John Faulkner this week said he wanted Australian soldiers out of Afghanistan in the "shortest time frame possible," but denied opposition lawmaker accusations the country was considering early withdrawal.
As well as commandos, Australia has reconstruction troops and trainers in Afghanistan, advising local forces on how to take control of security in Oruzgan.
Faulkner will attend North Atlantic Treaty Organization meetings in Slovakia this week to discuss Afghanistan's future as U.S. President Barack Obama decides whether to dramatically boost American troop numbers.
I feel bad that you have lost your son but I don't feel bad that a murderer of innocent civilians has lost his life
Mufti Sheik Haron