Canadian soldiers patrolling the volatile Panjwaii district of southern Afghanistan captured two Afghan men believed to have handled explosives.

inside-sperwan3

Canadian soldiers keep watch in Sperwan as their fellow soldiers deal with two detainees captured during a patrol this week in Afghanistan's Kandahar province this week. ((James Cudmore/CBC))

The incident happened near Forward Operating Base Sperwan Ghar, said CBC News reporter James Cudmore, who accompanied the patrol.

A small group of soldiers of the Quebec-based 3rd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment had been conducting a foot patrol through a built-up area, Cudmore said.

The patrol, conducted this past week,was intended as a show of force, military officials said.

"Soldiers spent roughly four hours in the area walking down narrow alleyways, and around high, mud-walled compounds," Cudmore said.

Two and a half hours into the patrol, the soldiers encountered three young men in a small Toyota truck.

"It's uncommon for Afghans in rural Kandahar to operate a vehicle without a full load of passengers," Cudmore said.

Suspicions raised

inside-sperwan4

Canadian soldiers conduct a patrol along rough narrow roads, in Sperwan in Afghanistan's Kandahar province this week. ((James Cudmore/ CBC))

Under questioning by Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter, the men were found to be carrying more money than is typical for local Afghans to carry.

"These facts combined made the Canadians suspicious," Cudmore said.

The Canadian patrol commander, identified as Sgt. Yan, ordered a military combat engineer to perform a field chemical test on the men. The test determines the presence of gunshot residue or chemicals commonly found in explosives.

Once the test was done, two of the men were found to have— at the very least— been in contact with explosive material and the men were ordered arrested, the military said. The men were searched and had their hands bound with plastic ties.

"It was the first time that I caught someonewho tested positive for the test," Yan told CBC News.

"I was asking a lot of questions in my head, if I bring them back or not, and I took the decision to do that."

Crowd gathers

While the patrol determined how best to handle the prisoners, a large crowd of local Afghans gathered around the patrol. A small group ofelders tried to convince the Canadians the men were innocent.

One offered to take responsibility for the men, invoking an ancient Pashtun tribal code that is still popular in the area and which compels Afghans to provide shelter and safe harbour to those who ask for it.

The area the patrol was operating in is inaccessible to large Canadian armoured vehicles.

"The roads are sometimes too narrow for anything larger than a motor bike," Cudmore said.

In addition, the walled compounds that form the large part of the terrain in the region are marked by one-metre tall agricultural walls that support grape vines in bloom.The walls made the possibility of landing a helicopter in the area nearly impossible.

As a result, the soldiers were forced to march the detainees through the village back to their base, about two kilometres away. CBC News has learned the two men were 22 and 24 years old. They were detained at a nearby Canadian base.

Although the Afghan National Army operates in the region, it refused to take custody of the detainees, citing a local religious holiday. As a result, the detained men were held overnight by Canadian troops until they could be flown to Kandahar Airfield the next day.

The Canadian Forces do not maintain holding cells at all of their forward bases so themen were locked inside a metal shipping container, typically used to ship goods across country or overseas. The detaineeswere provided food, blankets and beds to sleep on, the military told CBC.

Forced to act on evidence, commander says

The local Canadian commander, Maj. Patrick Robichaud, said his soldiers were forced to detain the men as a result of the chemical evidence gathered on patrol.

"They will be investigated and if there's anything that indicates that they're not tied intowhat we found on them, then we'll let them go," Robichaud told CBC News.

"We will then inform the villagers that they have been let go. But in the meantime, we had better be safe than sorry."

"The Canadian military's operating theory is that, at the very least, the men had handled explosives that might be used to build Improvised Explosive Devices," Cudmore said.

The majority of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan have been killed by such devices, or in suicide attacks.

"Catching someone involved in either manufacturing, transporting or laying such devices would be considered a tactical coup," Cudmore said.

Over the past year, the Canadian Forces has struggled through a political debate about its detainee-handling procedures.

Those procedures require all detainees captured by Canadian soldiers to be handed over to Afghan security forces within 96 hours.This period may be extended, in rare circumstances.

Canadian Forces officials at the Kandahar airfield have so far refused to confirm whether the detainees have been turned over to Afghan police.