3 new deaths in Afghanistan push Canadian toll to 101
2 other soldiers seriously wounded in separate blast
Three Canadian soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan Friday, raising the Canadian death toll there above the sombre milestone of 100.
Canada has now lost 100 soldiers and one diplomat since it first began the military mission six years ago.
As with many of the deaths, the latest casualties came from an improvised explosive device (IED) — one of the Taliban's weapons of choice.
The three were in an armoured vehicle when it struck the IED west of Kandahar city around 9 a.m. local time.
According to the CBC's David Common, the explosion left a crater in the road that was nine metres deep.
"The road was just separated in two," Commons told CBC.ca.
In an unrelated incident, two soldiers were also injured Friday, one of them seriously, by an explosion while on foot patrol in the Zhari district, west of Kandahar city.
PM offers condolences to tight-knit base
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his condolences directly to the troops at the Petawawa base while attending a Christmas charity event for military families.
The deaths were a first for the new rotation of troops who had arrived in Kandahar in September.
While Diplaros was on his first tour, McLaren had returned for his second tour despite suffering injuries previously in Afghanistan.
Information about Wilson, whose name was temporarily withheld earlier Friday at his family's request, was not immediately available.
Back in 2006, McLaren was injured by shrapnel when two American warplanes accidentally killed a Canadian and injured 30 others.
"[Cpl. McLaren] was anxious to return and assist the Afghan national army to bring peace and stability to this country," Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, commander of Canadian troops, said.
Thompson said McLaren, 23, also risked his life several weeks ago by crawling towards an Afghan soldier, who had been shot, while under fire in order to provide him with first aid.
"[He] was living a dream, did what he wanted to do, put his life on the line. Now we're remembering him for that," his father told CBC News by telephone from Peterborough, Ont.
He said his son planned to attend university and make a life with his fiancée, Michelle, when he returned.
The general, meanwhile, described 24-year-old Diplaros as an "exceptional gunner and driver."
"He was generally known to his friends and colleagues as Dip because of their inability to pronounce his last name," said Thompson.
Speaking from his home in Scarborough, Ont., Anargyros Diplaros commended his son's bravery, saying he will proudly remember him as "my boy, my sweetheart, my braveness."
"I was prepared for this. It's very hard, but I was prepared for it," the elder Diplaros told CBC News.
When asked if he had a message for politicians in the wake of his son's death, Diplaros said there were many other ways the Canadian government could spend "millions or billions or trillions to help other countries instead of killing each other.
"I strongly believe that there are many, many other ways we can bring all the countries together, all the nationalities together, instead of killing each other and fighting."
McLaren said his son's death hasn't affected his belief in the importance of the mission.
"People always tend to refocus when someone passes away but if Mark were here, I'd agree with him that he was considering the greater good rather than his own safety," he said.
"Even after I heard my son passed away, my position on it benefiting the Afghan people hasn't changed."
Milestone may revive Afghanistan debate
Soldiers at Petawawa were upset that the latest casualty came three weeks before Christmas, especially after a three-month lull in fatalities for the Canadian Forces.
Before Friday, the last Canadian death was on Sept. 7, when Sgt. Scott Shipway was killed under similar circumstances after his armoured vehicle struck an improvised explosive device during a security patrol.
Two Canadian aid workers — an education specialist from Montreal and an educator from B.C. — were shot dead in eastern Afghanistan in August.
"To have gone for three straight months gave soldiers here perhaps a little bit of cautious optimism," said CBC's David Common. "That optimism, of course, shattered … tonight, as there are many solemn faces."
The Canadian milestone is expected to revive debate about the country's role in Afghanistan, though soldiers at Petawawa were focused solely on the individual deaths.
"For some it could be a number, for some it could be a milestone," said one soldier, who didn't give his name. "We don't think about the numbers. We think about our fallen comrades, our brothers in arms."
The general, too, sought to downplay the talk of the death toll and keep the spotlight on the individual lives lost.
"Already there is talk of numbers and milestones, but it is my hope that the focus remains on the lives and the sacrifices of these brave soldiers as they serve Canada in the effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan," said Thompson.
One military expert told CBC News that Friday's deaths are unlikely to have an impact on Canada's military mission.
"There's a lot of anger and sadness after something like this, but [the soldiers] are professionals [who are] trained to deal with it and will continue with their job at hand, as they believe the soldiers who have been killed would have wanted them to," said Mercedes Stephenson, a military analyst.
In the recent election campaign, Harper vowed to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2011 and said Canadians didn't have an appetite to keep soldiers stationed there any longer.
About 2,500 Canadian soldiers are among the 50,700 soldiers from around the world serving in Afghanistan.
Forces pursuing more aggressive strategy
Canadian soldiers have been fighting in the Arghandab district, a hotbed of insurgent activity, for many months.
The past summer was a particularly violent one in Afghanistan, with insurgents carrying out several high-profile attacks on troops from the NATO-commanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
As the temperature dropped, militant attacks subsided with it.
The Canadian Forces are hoping to take advantage of the lull in insurgent activity.
Thompson said in October that Canadian and other ISAF forces would be stepping up their attacks on insurgents in the winter, with the help of a more experienced Afghan army.
The strategy marks a change in approach from previous winters, when fighting traditionally died down due to harsher weather.
A month before Thompson's announcement, Harper pledged to bring home the bulk of combat forces in Afghanistan by 2011. Harper said at the time that Canada will have "done its bit at that point."
The rising costs of the Afghan mission likely played a factor in his decision. Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page tabled a report in October that said the price tag of the Canadian mission could be as high as $18.1 billion by 2011.
With files from the Canadian Press