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Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan Print
Graham Thomson - Canwest News Service - August 09, 2008

Master Cpl. Joshua Brian Roberts was killed oin a skirmish involving coalition forces, insurgents and a private firm that provides armed escorts for civilian convoys.

KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan - A Canadian soldier, whose fiancee is nearly eight-months pregnant, has been killed in a confusing firefight involving a private security company in the notoriously violent Zhari district, west of Kandahar City.

The soldier is identified as Master Cpl. Josh Roberts of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry based in Shilo, Man.

Military officials are saying little about how Roberts died, except to say he was killed on Saturday morning in a skirmish involving coalition forces, insurgents and a private firm that provides armed escorts for civilian convoys.

Roberts was counting down the days until his fiancee gave birth to his first-born son.

"Josh Roberts has 55 days till fatherhood . . . oh my," reads a July 31 posting by Roberts on his personal website on the online social network Facebook. He leaves behind his fiancee, 25-year-old Lise Malenfant of Prince Albert, Sask.

The commander of Task Force Kandahar refused to comment on speculation the private firm might have accidentally fired on the Canadians.

"An investigation is being conducted to determine the details surrounding this incident and further information will be made public when it is available," said Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson.

Thompson said friends of Roberts, promoted to master corporal just two weeks ago, described him as a "fun-loving and genuine individual who was totally dedicated to the army and held his section together. He looked out for his guys in ways they probably didn't realize."

Roberts, is the 15th Canadian soldier to die in the Afghanistan mission this year and the 89th since 2002.

He joined the regular army in 2006 after serving with the North Saskatchewan reserve regiment in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Thompson wouldn't name the security company involved in the firefight. But such companies are a regular sight in Afghanistan. The Canadian military even hires private security to help guard some of its bases, said Thompson.

"Without private security firms it would be impossible to achieve what we're achieving here. There are many aspects of the mission here in Afghanistan, many security aspects that are performed by private security firms that which, if they were turned over to the military, would make our task impossible. We just don't have the numbers to do everything."

A big player in the private escort business here is Compass Security which operates in Iraq and Afghanistan, with offices in New York as well as the Middle East. Last April, Canadians shot and killed a Compass employee when his vehicle sped towards a military convoy.

The dangers to civilians of coming too close to troops was driven home again on Saturday. Just hours after Roberts was killed, Canadians endured a nerve-jangling foot patrol inside Kandahar City when they opened fire three different times in the space of 30 minutes at what they thought were possible suicide attacks.

One Afghan bystander was slightly wounded by a ricocheting bullet fired as a warning by Canadians at a man driving a motorcycle directly at the patrol. After yelling and waving, troops fired several shots into the ground to get the driver's attention in what is called an "escalation of force.

"It's highly unusual," said Capt. Fraser Clark who was on the patrol. "So far on this rotation we've never had three escalations of force like we did this morning. I don't think that there's any explicable or rational reason why we had three this morning."

One possible factor, said Clark, is that Canadian foot patrols are a relatively rare sight in Kandahar City. Residents are simply not watching out for them as they do for convoys of armoured vehicles that use lights and sirens to get people's attention.

As a journalist invited along for the patrol, I could see first hand how little time soldiers have to react when they realize a vehicle speeding at them is not going to stop. It is a heart-pounding moment when what was a friendly outreach patrol suddenly escalates into a tense confrontation as soldiers snap weapons to their shoulders and take aim. Adding a layer of tension is the fact the neighbourhood on this patrol has had the highest incidents of vehicle-borne suicide bombers in the city this year.
 
In all three incidents on Saturday morning - one with the motorbike and two involving cars - the drivers apologized to soldiers for not paying attention. One sheepishly admitted he had a job as a private contractor at a Canadian base and was rushing to work when he absent-mindedly sped towards the convoy.

"My mind is not present here," he said in English.

Soldiers let each of the drivers go but snapped their pictures and collected information which will be used later to determine if any of the Afghan were involved in what soldiers call "sharking."

"The insurgents have been known to test out what our drills are to see how close that they can come (to convoys)" said Clark.

Canadians alerted the local hospital to let them know the wounded Afghan was on the way and have promised follow up care if he needs it. Officials would not say whether they would offer him compensation as they have done in similar events in the past.

Even though Saturday's patrol was cut short by the number of close calls, Clark said soldiers are determined to continue walking through the city on foot to make a connection with local residents.

"We're letting the locals know that we're here, that despite the fact that we're at the height of the fighting season that we're not intimidated by the Taliban, that we're still going to go out, that we're still going to continue on with the mission to help stabilize Kandahar City."
 
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