RELATED STORY:Canadian forces take ‘ink spot’ approach

ZALAKHAN, Afghanistan — Dusk was closing fast on a patrol of Canadian soldiers as they cleared a sector of this bombed-out, abandoned village. Suddenly, the puttering of a motorbike was heard in the distance.

The sound came as a surprise. The motorcycle was the first non-military vehicle they had heard since they moved in three days earlier to set up a new outpost here, about six miles southwest of the provincial capital of Kandahar.

The patrol — a group of French-Canadian soldiers from the Royal 22nd Regiment, known as the “Van Doos” — was split between two high-walled mud brick compounds on either side of a narrow dirt road that ran through the village.

“Take cover, boys,” the patrol leader shouted, as he and two other soldiers ducked behind a high metal gate into the compound on the right.

With the near-constant shelling of artillery in the area over the previous days, it was a safe bet that the rider was not just passing through. Chinese-made Honda motorcycles are the Taliban’s favorite method of transporting fighters and supplies around the Afghan battlefield.

With the sound of the motorcycle now just outside, the patrol leader and two soldiers sprang from their hiding place and blocked the road.

Two men were on a red Honda less than 50 meters away. A third followed on a second motorcycle just behind them. The soldiers yelled for the men to stop. The men jumped from the motorcycles and began to run.

The Canadian soldiers opened fire. Two of the men dashed through a gate in a mud wall to the left and into a field before they were cut down by other troops. The third man died in a hail of fire before he even made it off the road. He fell face down in the dirt and did not move again. The fusillade had lasted less than 30 seconds.

Meanwhile, automatic weapons fire had erupted from a clump of trees about 100 meters to the south. A second burst came from across the field to the east. An explosion thundered, as a soldier fired a grenade. The enemy fire stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

Three soldiers ran through the blasted interior of the first compound and came out through another gate, closer to where one of the dead men lay. Two soldiers stepped out warily, one of them pointing his rifle at the tree line to the south.

The patrol leader called for an airstrike. The first of a half-dozen 155 mm artillery rounds came in less than a minute later, exploding in shrieking airbursts to the south and the east, where the soldiers believed they were taking fire. The shells were followed by an equal number of white phosphorous smoke rounds, which also exploded in midair.

As darkness fell, a team of combat engineers moved forward to check the motorcycles and the bodies of the three men for booby traps. There were none. The other soldiers cheered and bumped fists when the engineers announced had found a 60 mm mortar tube, a base plate and four high-explosive rounds. The three men had definitely been Taliban.

One of the fighters was still alive. He cried in pain as a medic treated his wounds. The patrol leader called for a medevac helicopter.

“It’s been a good day, huh?” a sergeant said. His name, like the others, is withheld because of task force ban on identifying troops who kill or injure insurgents or civilians.

“Yeah, they were probably going to fire those mortars on us,” said another soldier. “We assured ourselves of a good sleep tonight.”

The wailing of the wounded fighter continued. He repeated the same thing over and over in a ragged rhythm. A soldier asked an Afghan interpreter what the words meant.

“I don’t know,” the interpreter said. “He is saying nothing.”

Finally, he grew quieter and then the crying ceased altogether. He, too, was dead. The patrol leader canceled the medevac.

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