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MacKay reassures Afghans after civilian deaths

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KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- Defence Minister Peter MacKay assured the Afghan government Tuesday that Canadian troops are following the rules of engagement in Afghanistan as concern mounts over civilian deaths in the war-torn country after a U.S.-led coalition air strike killed at least 90 Afghans -- mostly women and children -- last week.

"I can assure you we take all precautions and all rules of engagement are followed," Mr. MacKay said during a two-day whirlwind visit to Afghanistan, along with Jim Flaherty, Canada's Minister of Finance.

"We have tremendous confidence and faith in our leadership here in Afghanistan," he added.

The United Nations confirmed Tuesday there was substantial evidence that some 90 civilians -- including 60 children and 15 women -- were killed in Aziz Bad, in the Herat province of Western Afghanistan, in Friday's air strike.

Haji-Gul Ahmad, who lost family members in the attack, said several relatives were there for the funeral of his brother and were staying in the area that was hit. He said one family lost 76 members in the raid.

"We are not helping the Taliban, nor were they in the village," Mr. Ahmad said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "We don't know why the coalition forces raided our village with blind eyes. This does not make sense."

Mr. Ahmad said there have been protests at the Aziz Bad police station since and locals have been throwing stones at coalition forces who are trying to administer humanitarian aid in the area.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has come under fire due to the rising number of civilian deaths in the country, and has ordered a government review of the incident in Aziz Bad, as well as a review of the foreign troop presence in Afghanistan, including their use of air strikes.

Mr. MacKay worked to alleviate any concerns the Karzai government may have about the Canadian troops.

"We continue to have regular and rigorous contact on all elements of the mission, whether it be military, whether it be civil or whether it be diplomatic government-to-government relationships," Mr. MacKay said at the Kandahar Air Field Tuesday.

"We take all necessary precautions and we make all efforts to see that level of co-operation protects civilians and furthers the goals of the mission."

Two senior Afghan National Army commanders were reportedly fired after Friday's incident.

Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghan minister of defence, who was with Mr. MacKay at Kandahar Air Field Tuesday, also expressed concern over the rising civilian casualties, and urged his allies to exercise greater caution when using air strikes in populated areas.

"It is against the targets and objectives which we, both the international community and the Afghans, have picked out," he said, adding that the Taliban often makes propaganda campaign out of such incidents.

"There is a need to exercise more caution. We see what we can further improve by using much more of our intelligence, doing a better analysis, integrating our planning and bringing [operational communications] much closer together, which will take care and prevent the repetition of such incidents."

Mr. MacKay also met with the new governor of Kandahar, Rahmatullah Raufi, Monday during his visit to discuss the security issues in the volatile region where the bulk of Canada 2,500 troops in the country are stationed. He said he was "impressed" by the new governor's knowledge of the situation.

"We did discuss, as I did with Mr. Wardak, efforts to bring more Afghans into the national police and the army," Mr. MacKay said. "I know that Minister Wardak has made this a great priority."

He also made an announcement of new $16-million contribution to a new junior staff officer training facility for the Afghan National Army in Kabul, and unveiled the Canadian Forces' new small unmanned aerial vehicles that were announced earlier this month and will replace their older models. They have become known as "the ski-doos" because of the loud noise they make in the air.

"Having these eyes in the sky that allow us to locate the Taliban, to see in some incidents where they're making these IEDs that are having such a horrific affect on the troops and the civilian population. Having that type of technology in-theatre is going to help us accomplish many of our goals," he said.

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