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While the news-media spotlight is trained on the hundreds of Canadian ground troops setting up base in Kandahar, members of Ottawa's elite commando unit are working hand in glove with their U.S. counterparts in highly secretive missions, far from prying eyes.

Some operations involving Joint Task Force 2 have been highly risky, including the recent battle at a hospital in Kandahar that killed six al-Qaeda fighters who had holed up in a ward for weeks.

Forty to 50 JTF2 troops have been operating in Afghanistan since fall, but few details of their work have emerged.

According to one source, 38 Canadian commandos are based in the Kandahar area. Most work in seven- or eight-member cells, made up of one or two Canadians, four or five U.S. special-forces troops, an interpreter and an Afghan army guide.

In a rare moment of candour, one U.S. special-forces member shed light on how closely he and his colleagues work with JTF2.

"Sure, I've seen the Canadians. I see them all the time; they're usually working right beside us," he said, leaning against one of the pickup trucks that are the hallmark of the coalition special forces.

"It's not like you guys have your own army or anything," he joked. "Canada's just a colder part of America -- you should know that."

The commandos' main bases are the Kandahar airport, provincial Governor Gul Agha Sherzai's official residence and the town of Maiwand, several hours west of Kandahar, where the al-Qaeda terrorist network was once a strong presence.

Another, smaller group is based in Kandahar itself, at a guard house on the edge of what was once former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's opulent home.

Canadian, Australian, German and U.S. special-forces troops can be seen in the area, usually buzzing through Kandahar's dusty streets in Toyota pickup trucks.

Three or four usually are seated in the cab, with the Afghan guard sitting on the truck box, his gun in the open. Unlike regular army troops, the soldiers often wear civilian clothing; many sport scraggly beards and a few even speak Afghan languages.

An Afghan interpreter who works with the special forces spoke on condition he not be named, to protect his job. Most operations take place at night, he said; many are so secretive that even the other special-forces troops do not know what their colleagues are doing.

The interpreter revealed that many missions have involved troops forcing their way into homes where suspected al-Qaeda members or weapons caches are believed to be. "They go into the villages, looking for Talibs and al-Qaeda members. When we capture Arabs, we shift them to the [Kandahar]airport at night, between 9 p.m. and the morning."

Sometimes, rewards are offered to villagers in exchange for co-operation in pointing out where fugitives might be hiding. The special-forces troops based at Mr. Sherzai's house have a list of former Taliban leaders they are trying to capture or kill, the interpreter said.

He said the Canadians are almost impossible to distinguish from the Americans, because they often dress and look alike. The interpreter said he realized he was working with a Canadian one night only when a soldier told him. But there's no question who's in charge.

"The Canadians do not have power," he said. "All the leadership is Americans. The Canadians are co-operating with them."

While the interpreter was reluctant to discuss specific mission details, he said he has frequently travelled with special forces into the region near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to hunt for Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects.

But he said the focus has shifted to finding and destroying weapons caches.

One such operation took place this week in central Kandahar. Residents of a neighbourhood who had gathered for evening prayers emerged to find their mosque surrounded by special-forces soldiers of unknown nationality, their machine guns and assault rifles trained on the congregation.

"For 1½ hours, they kept us in the mosque while they searched our homes. No one could go out or come inside," Mullah Abdul Salaam said. "They asked me, 'Where are the Arabs?' They thought because I was a mullah, I was hiding them."

A high-profile special-forces operation took place on Jan. 28, at Kandahar's Mirwais hospital, where six al-Qaeda fighters had been holed up for more than a month.

Ghulam Mohammed, head nurse at the Mir Wais Hospital, said that he was questioned before and after the shootout by two special-forces soldiers -- one Canadian, one American. The pair asked about the Arab fighters and about the hospital's physical layout, suggesting that Canadians were involved in at least the planning and mop-up stages of the Jan. 28 attack.

Mr. Mohammed and other hospital staff said that several of the commandos who charged the ward wore the forest-green uniforms worn by Canadian soldiers.

The Mirwais shootout, which took place in the early morning, was a unique mission because it was public enough to attract attention. But confirming whether Canadians were involved in the gun battle is nearly impossible, as the Department of National Defence discloses no information on JTF2 actions in the field.

JTF2 commandos took part in a Jan. 21 mission that captured at least three prisoners and handed them over to U.S. special forces. The transfer, caught on camera, caused an uproar in Ottawa when it became clear that Defence Minister Art Eggleton had not advised Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of the operation for several days.

Another controversial mission occurred on Jan. 23, in the city of Orozgun, but there is no indication any Canadians were involved. At least 19 Afghans were killed in an assault on what the Pentagon admits was mistakenly believed to be a hideout for Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters. Yesterday, the Pentagon said that more than 20 people taken prisoner in the raid had been released.

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