Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Rockets Slam Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan during MacKay Visit

From The Edmonton Sun
The unmistakable bang, the angry buzz of a rocket and a loud explosion shattered the relative quiet at this forward base Tuesday as Defence Minister Peter MacKay was visiting Canadian troops.
After the first incoming rocket whizzed overhead, MacKay’s bodyguards went into full battle alert, grabbing their helmets, clutching their guns, calling for a light armoured vehicle with which to safeguard the minister.
MacKay is making his first trip to Afghanistan since taking over the defence portfolio in mid-August.
He was not hurt, but the attack cut short the day’s plans for him to travel through parts of southern Afghanistan.
Half an hour after a second rocket landed, a Blackhawk helicopter shuttled the minister away while another chopper circled the base keeping a close eye on the ground.
The second attack, coming 15 minutes after the first, found its mark inside the base, causing minor injuries to four soldiers. They were airlifted to the main base at Kandahar Airfield.
The rocket landed in a cloud of smoke and dust about 50 metres away from soldiers and reporters who dived to the ground for cover, seeking shelter against a cement wall at the forward base in the volatile Zhari district of Kandahar province.
“Run now! Run to the vehicles!” yelled one soldier. “Go, go, go!”
What ensued was a 25-meter dash, heads low as everyone sought shelter in a number of light armoured vehicles parked nearby.
“Straight to the vehicles,” shouted Col. Stephane Lafaut, commander of the Canadian military’s Operational Liaison Mentoring Team.
Only seconds earlier, Lafaut was doing interviews with reporters waiting for a chance to follow MacKay around the base.
“We heard the explosion,” MacKay recounted later. “We heard the whistle overhead. We were told to get down. We did.”
“Everything went like clockwork. We were taken out of harm’s way very quickly, put in an armoured vehicle. The people I’m travelling with are consummate professionals.”
MacKay praised the “cool ... professional” way the troops at the base reacted under attack, and expressed concerns for the four wounded soldiers. “Thankfully these were non-life-threatening injuries. They were treated immediately.”
In Ottawa, Gen. Rick Hillier, the chief of defence staff, said the soldiers’ injuries were so minor that they have returned to their posts.
Hillier told reporters he believed the base was the intended target — not MacKay. “The minister was not subjected to an attack,” he said.
“What was subjected to an attack was one of our forward operating bases. That has been consistent, because the Taliban have been driven back and they have to resort to long-distance attacks in most cases,” Hillier said.
But a rocket attack on the base when Canada’s defence minister is visiting is a concern, admitted Lafaut.
“Every time you hear one, it is not a good sign. It means the enemy still has some freedom of movement,” said Lafaut.
“We see that as a desperate move because we have disturbed a lot of their freedom in the last two or three months. Sometimes they commence a little offensive action like this.”
The colonel gave MacKay full credit for visiting the war zone.
“It’s important for the military to know that our politicians are supporting us. They come here on the ground and speak to our troops and support us,” Lafaut said.
“They assume the same risks as us, and we’re quite proud to see that.”
There’s a reason that Canada still maintains a strong presence in the Zhari region.
The Taliban still roam this land — a study in contrasts of deserts and lush fields of grapes, marijuana and opium.
There was an ambush earlier on the road leading to this base shortly before MacKay landed by helicopter. While violence and attacks are common, this particular day was out of the ordinary.
“It’s not like this all days. Today they have this special interest. I don’t know why,” Lafaut said with a shrug, tongue planted firmly in cheek.
“We’re still trying to find out where the fire was initiated from. We think we have spotted some observers from the (Canadian) battle group right now which is in charge of the security here and is working on that problem,” he said.
“I’m always nervous every time it happens because our soldiers are in danger. With the minister here, we are even more concerned.

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