KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Four soldiers and a journalist were killed Wednesday by a powerful improvised explosive device in the worst loss of Canadian life in Afghanistan in two-and-a-half years.
The five deaths occurred as the soldiers in armoured vehicles patrolled in what was considered to be a safe part of southern Kandahar city.
The military did not immediately release any names because of problems notifying family.
However, journalists on the base identified the reporter killed as Michelle Lang, 34, a reporter with the Calgary Herald. She was in the back of an armoured vehicle at the time.
“Yesterday, Canada lost five citizens,” Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard, commander of coalition forces in Kandahar, said early Thursday.
“The soldiers were conducting a community security patrol in order to gather information on the pattern of life and maintain security in the area.”
One Canadian civilian official was also hurt, Menard said.
The huge blast occurred during a routine presence patrol in Kandahar’s District 2 abutting the Dand district, where Canada has established a “model village.”
The explosion happened just 1,500 metres from the Dand district centre, which Canadian soldiers helped rebuild after a suicide bombing in April.
Witnesses described panic among locals, as Canadian soldiers rushed to secure the area and airlift the victims to medical care.
Nevertheless, Menard declared that Dand remained a “safe area” and expressed confidence that this was an isolated incident.
In all, 138 Canadian soldiers — 32 of them this year — and two civilians have been killed in the Canada’s eight-year mission to Afghanistan.
The incident was the second lethal strike against Canadian forces by the insurgents in a week. Lt. Andrew Nuttall and an Afghan soldier were killed Dec. 23 during a foot patrol in Panjwaii district.
Lang, on her first assignment in Afghanistan for Canwest News Service, had arrived in the country little more than two weeks ago. She won a National Newspaper Award last year for coverage of health and medical issues for the Calgary Herald.
“The journalist was travelling with (the troops) to tell the story of what Canada’s soldiers are doing in Afghanistan,” Menard said.
While she had spent a few days visiting bases with Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk, it was her first patrol “outside the wire” as an embedded journalist.
“I’ve seen a lot of reporters come here who seem like action junkies or kind of ’Hey, look at me, I’m in Afghanistan’,” said James Murray, a CBC reporter who has spent the past six of seven months here.
“She was the kind of journalist you would want to have here. She was kind and decent, and curious.”
“We are all devastated by the loss of Michelle and our thoughts right now are with her family and her fiance,” said Scott Anderson, editor-in-chief of Canwest News Service.
“Journalists need to — and do — put themselves at risk every day to report first-hand on important stories like Afghanistan. But that doesn’t make this any easier.”
Menard said he did not expect any changes to the military’s media embed program as a result of the tragedy.
The horrific day was the worst for Canada’s Afghan mission since July 4, 2007, when six Canadian soldiers were killed in a roadside blast west of Kandahar city.
Four soldiers died in two separate incidents on March 20 this year, while three were killed on March 3.
The most recent attacks show the insurgency, which normally tapers off over the winter, is still capable of mustering lethal force despite the surge of American troops in the area.
Both Canadian and American soldiers have stepped up their presence patrols in addition to moving out of bases into “platoon houses” in Afghan villages as part of their strategy of trying to reassure locals of their security.
Wednesday’s strike also came on a day when hundreds of Afghans took to the streets to protest the killing of 10 civilians, including school children, in military operations by international forces.
President Hamid Karzai’s office said the deaths occurred on Sunday in a remote part of Kunar province.
Also Wednesday, U.S. officials reported that eight Americans had been killed in a suicide attack on a military base in southeastern Khost province but it was not clear if they were soldiers or civilians.