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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa disputes leaked friendly-fire account

The federal government insists that an archive of leaked military records from Afghanistan doesn't tell the whole truth, and that a document that reports that four Canadian soldiers died from U.S. friendly fire is incorrect.

The terse report, dated Sept. 3, 2006, appears to suggest that the four Canadians, reported killed fighting the Taliban in a major offensive called Operation Medusa, were in fact slain by a U.S. military guided bomb.

But the Harper government - which initially refused all comment on the 92,000 leaked U.S. and NATO documents posted on the Internet by WikiLeaks - broke its silence Monday night to deny that the deaths had been caused by a mistake by an ally.

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"At all times the Canadian Forces have been open and forthright with the families of our fallen soldiers and the Canadian public about the circumstances relating to death in Afghanistan," said Jay Paxton, an aide to Defence Minister Peter MacKay. "The loss of four Canadian soldiers on Sept. 3, 2006, was the result of insurgent activity in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan.

"The only friendly-fire incident from time period in question occurred on Sept. 4, 2006, when Private Mark Anthony Graham was killed in the same district."

That acknowledged friendly-fire death came just one day after the deaths of four other Canadians: Sergeant Shane Stachnik, Warrant Officer Frank Mellish, Warrant Officer Richard Nolan, and Private William Cushley.

A document from the leaked archive shows that U.S. soldiers in the 205th Regional Corps Assistance Group logged four friendly-fire deaths that day. In cryptic military language, it records U.S. soldiers taking fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, before an U.S.-guided bomb was dropped in reply, killing four Canadian soldiers.

"At 030414Z Sept 06 received SAF & RPGS from sawtooth building. returned fire 1x GBU dropped on it. Sawtooth building is heavily damaged. only 4x sections remain standing. no activity observed. Casualties 4x CDN KIA 4X CDN WIA."

The next line updates to report seven Canadians and a civilian interpreter wounded. But Canadian officials note it is one log report in what would have been many on such an incident. They could not account for the error, other than to suggest that the soldier filing the report mistakenly linked the four soldiers killed in nearby operations against the Taliban with the U.S. bombing.

"It's a big mistake," said retired Canadian colonel Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and expert on government documents. "People will want to get to the bottom of what could possibly create such an error. But I take [the Defence Minister]at his word."

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The leaked documents, including hundreds of snippets about Canadian operations in Afghanistan, have created consternation in Ottawa - and raised questions about whether the government has been frank about the war.

They include reports of repeated crashes of Canada's unmanned aerial drones, and records that indicate that the 2007 attack that killed Master Corporal Darrell Priede and six other NATO soldiers wasn't the result of a rocket-propelled grenade, as reported, but a more sophisticated shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile.

Reports of surface-to-air missiles are significant for two reasons. They indicate that Taliban have more sophisticated weapons to knock down allied helicopters than NATO has acknowledged, and they revive questions about whether the insurgents still have a cache of CIA-supplied Stinger missiles they once used successfully against Soviet troops.

For the most part, the documents consist of everyday reports that relentlessly record the ugly clashes of war, including deaths caused by improvised explosive devices, and the operations mounted by the Canadians and their allies to seize IED parts and capture or kill their makers.

But they also raise fundamental questions, notably suggesting that the intelligence service of neighbouring Pakistan, ostensibly an ally, is aiding the Taliban.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon insisted Canada is working on projects with Pakistan, but despite repeated questions, did not give the country a ringing endorsement as an ally. He insisted the government has reported transparently on the mission in Afghanistan.

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"We haven't misled the Canadian public in any way, shape or form," he said.

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