Canada suffered another loss in the grinding war against Taliban bombers yesterday with the death of a soldier in an explosion. The blast came only hours after the military claimed a victory with the killing of an insurgent suspected of masterminding deadly bomb attacks on Canadians.
The flurry of violence on Boxing Day serves as a window on the insurgents' winter campaign of bombings and the struggle by Canadian intelligence operatives to break the secretive cells of militants who plant the explosives.
The latest blast killed a Canadian soldier, Private Michael Bruce Freeman, and injured three others around 12:45 p.m. local time in Zhari district, about 24 kilometres west of Kandahar city. It happened roughly a dozen kilometres from the stretch of highway where six other Canadians were killed in separate blasts earlier this month.
The man believed responsible for the earlier bombings, known as Shahir Sahib, died earlier in the day as U.S. forces swept into compounds further west of the city during an overnight raid in Maywand district, according to a military statement.
"Canadian intelligence operators played a key role in developing leads and information that led to the conduct of this operation," the statement said.
But the raid ignited an angry protest on the main highway later in the afternoon, with local villagers burning tires and blocking the road for three hours, claiming that innocent people were killed in the attack. They also protested against the disappearance of a woman who they mistakenly believed had been detained. The crowd later dispersed after tribal elders explained that the woman had only been taken away for medical treatment.
At one point, witnesses described the unruly mob swelling into a crowd of hundreds and preparing to charge the heavily guarded barricades of Maywand District Centre, the main government outpost in the rebellious district.
Ustad Abdul Halim, an influential tribal leader, said Kandahar's governor and intelligence chief called him half a dozen times, urgently asking him to help stop the unrest.
The chain-smoking former mujahedeen commander summarized the chaotic events with a simple phrase: "It's a very bloody day."
Few details have been released about the Canadian killed yesterday.
The military has told the soldier's family about the death, and the family has requested a short delay before the name and personal details are publicized.
Helicopters took the three wounded soldiers to a military hospital at Kandahar Air Field, and all of them were listed in good condition last night.
The number of bombings in the districts west of the city has climbed sharply in recent weeks as the cold weather discourages large groups of insurgents from roaming the countryside and the Taliban shift toward attacks that require less manpower.
Unlike other recent bombings, the latest occurred away from the main routes. It appears the Canadians were travelling off-road, a common tactic to avoid Taliban bombs. The dusty flatlands near particularly dangerous stretches of highway are often carved up with dozens of tire tracks as the Canadians try to steer their vehicles along new paths in hopes of missing any buried explosives.
But such tactics have limits; Canadian officials have repeatedly said that better armour and the latest bomb-detecting technology will not keep soldiers completely safe from the bombers, who are able to adapt to new techniques.
Instead, the Canadians have recently focused on collecting tips and forensic evidence to target the bombers themselves. The military's claim of success at finding a senior insurgent who planned the recent attacks on Canadian troops - in two blasts, on Dec. 5 and Dec. 13, near the town of Senjaray - is highly unusual because such operations are usually kept secret.
No Canadian soldiers were involved in the raid itself. A U.S. military statement said coalition forces approached a group of compounds about 75 kilometres west of Kandahar city and loudly called on the occupants to surrender peacefully.
"Disregarding these instructions, militants barricaded inside the compounds opened fire on the force using PKM machine guns and AK-47s," the U.S. statement said.
The soldiers waited until women and children had left the compound before retaliating, the statement said. The battle finished with 11 men killed and one injured woman, who was transported to hospital. She was suffering shrapnel wounds in her leg and is expected to fully recover.
"No martyrs here, just militants who put down roadside bombs that kill innocent Afghans," the U.S. statement said.
But local villagers said a child was killed and two other women injured and suggested that the U.S. troops had been tricked by a local man into targeting the houses as part of an ongoing feud. The owner of a house targeted in the raid, Nazar Mohammed, had a violent disagreement with his brother-in-law after a recent marriage.
This likely resulted in the tip-off about Taliban activity in the area, according to the group of disgruntled tribesmen who gathered yesterday at Mr. Halim's house on the west side of Kandahar city.
At the flaming roadblocks farther west on the highway, young men yelled slogans against the foreign troops.
"We will help the Taliban fight and remove the infidels from our area," one protester said. "The Americans came to kill the ordinary people, not the Taliban."
The fallen soldier
Private Michael Bruce Freeman, 28
Serving with N Company, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment from CFB Petawawa, Ont.
This was Pte. Freeman's first tour in Afghanistan.