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Local store fronts are under water in downtown High River, Alberta on Thursday, June 20, 2013. Photo by Chris Bolin / For The Globe and Mail

Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin

The Prime Minister's Office has rebuked the RCMP over its decision to seize guns in abandoned homes in High River, Alta., raising concerns Ottawa is interfering with the operations of the national police force during the flooding crisis.

The Mounties said they took firearms that had been left "in plain view" and promised to return them to their owners. However, the move angered many residents, who received the backing of the PMO.

"We expect that any firearms taken will be returned to their owners as soon as possible," PMO spokesperson Carl Vallée said in a statement on Friday. "We believe the RCMP should focus on more important tasks such as protecting lives and private property."

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Mr. Vallée added that the PMO was simply sharing its "view," as the current operations are overseen by the Alberta government. Still, the PMO's comments surprised analysts and critics who say the federal government should avoid commenting on police operations, especially while some of the facts about the controversy remain unclear.

There is a concern in Ottawa that the government is increasingly trying to assert its control over the RCMP. Last November, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews publicly scolded RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson for speaking to the media about an internal report into gender issues at the national police force.

In addition, the government has tried to ensure that RCMP officials limit their private meetings with parliamentarians, while seeking to be kept in the loop when it comes to the RCMP's statements to the media.

University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagassé, who is an expert on defence and security matters, said the PMO was obviously taking a political stand "by siding with the people in Alberta who think that the RCMP did not act appropriately" in High River.

However, Mr. Lagassé said the PMO was walking a fine line by criticizing the RCMP's activities, even though it clearly avoided giving a specific directive to the Mounties.

"This is not the norm," he said. "We can say that we are starting to get into a zone where it is less legitimate for the government to tell the RCMP to follow other priorities," said Mr. Lagassé.

NDP MP Randall Garrison said the incident showcases the government's growing attempts to control the RCMP. fuelling the impression that "they know better than the [RCMP] commander on the ground."

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"There is an unfortunate tendency in this government to try and interfere with RCMP operations, and certainly this statement reflects that attitude," he said.

RCMP assistant commissioner Marianne Ryan said that "the last thing any gun owner wants is to have their guns fall into the wrong hands. Residents of High River can be assured that firearms now in possession of the RCMP are in safe hands, and will be returned to them as soon as is practically possible," she said in a statement.

RCMP officers who removed guns from evacuated homes in High River were doing necessary work to secure the flood-ravaged town in a crisis, Premier Alison Redford said in response to criticism.

With reports from Jeffrey Jones and Josh Wingrove in Alberta

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