Opposition members attacked Defence Minister Art Eggleton Wednesday, demanding answers on his handling of information regarding the taking of prisoners in Afghanistan by Canadian troops.
"He can't keep changing his story and keep his credibility," said Tory Leader Joe Clark after an embarrassed Mr. Eggleton admitted he was told on Jan. 21 that members of the JTF2 antiterrorism unit assisted in capturing detainees - four days earlier than he had previously revealed.
"We feel betrayed," said John Reynolds, interim leader of the Canadian Alliance outside the House of Commons after Question Period. "This is a Minister ... we're at war, we deserve straight answers."
Mr. Eggleton became embroiled in opposition anger Tuesday for saying he first became aware that members of the elite Joint Task Force 2 had assisted in taking prisoners in Afghanistan on Friday, Jan. 25 but did not tell the Prime Minister until the following Tuesday.
Mr. Eggleton said Jan. 25 was the day he confirmed that Canadians were involved after inquiring about a newspaper photo of forest-green-clad soldiers transporting prisoners.
But on Wednesday, he admitted he was actually briefed of the actions of the JTF2 four days earlier - on Monday, Jan. 21 - while he was away on business trip to Mexico City.
Mr. Eggleton said he needed to get home and get further clarification on the matter from the chain of command and the judge advocate general before informing Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and cabinet.
"Mr. Speaker, apparently Mexico doesn't have any phones because he could have picked up the phone and called the Prime Minister," Tory MP Elsie Wayne said during a fiery exchange in Question Period.
In hindsight, Mr. Eggleton said he should have told Mr. Chrétien earlier.
"I regret I didn't tell him before."
But the Defence Minister defended himself by saying he needed to get home to talk to the judge advocate general and various people within the chain of command first, before talking to Mr. Chrétien. He said he "did not intitally understand the connection with the photograph."
The flip-flop led opposition members to question Mr. Eggleton's ability as Defence Minister.
"I think it's very serious because in a situation where there are already many unanswered questions it doesn't inspire any confidence at all that the Prime Minister and this government really knows what they're doing here," NDP Leader Alexa McDonough said.
"It's very dangerous behaviour for Canada and we need to know more about what's going on," Mr. Clark said.
The debate over what Canadian troops would do with prisoners captured in Afghanistan continued, meanwhile. It has now been revealed that Canada has already turned over prisoners to the United States, which refuses to give captives prisoner-of-war status.
Again Wednesday Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Eggleton said they were confident that any prisoners turned over to the United States would be treated humanely under international law by the United States, even if they are not designated as prisoners-of-war.
The Defence Minister has been pushed in recent weeks to clarify the rules of engagement to be followed by Canadian troops, 750 of whom are set to leave for Kandahar on Friday.
In the House of Commons Wednesday, Mr. Eggleton said the final rules had been approved and are now being handed out to the troops.
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