MacKay says Iran giving weapons to Taliban
Defence Minister makes comments during Christmas visit to Afghanistan
Canada's defence minister has accused Iran of providing weapons to the Taliban and fuelling the conflict in Afghanistan, where thousands of Canadian troops are involved in military operations.
Peter MacKay made the comments at Kandahar Airfield, where he is spending Christmas Day serving a Yuletide meal to hundreds of soldiers.
Speaking to reporters after the festivities, MacKay accused Afghanistan's neighbour, Iran, of propelling the conflict by providing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs, to insurgents there.
"We're very concerned that weapons are coming in from Iran. We're very concerned that these weapons are going to the insurgents."
Although Iran has been accused of interfering in Afghanistan in the past, MacKay's comments mark the first time a Canadian government official has made the accusation publicly. MacKay said the Iranian government is aware of his concerns.
It is also the first time the government has admitted that Iranian weapons are being used to target Canadian soldiers.
Canada has about 2,500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. It has lost 73 troops and one diplomat since beginning the mission in early 2002, in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban government.
Most of Canada's deaths have been the result of IEDs.
MacKay was joined in Afghanistan by Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier, who said his soldiers believe in the mission and are committed to helping build the Afghan army and the police force so they can eventually look after their own affairs.
MacKay spent most of the Christmas Day meal running plates of food to some 900-odd soldiers seated at decorated tables.
"Everyone in Canada is cheering for you," he told the crowd. "You're Canada's team."
MacKay made special mention of the Van Doos, the Royal 22nd Regiment, which is based at CFB Valcartier north of Quebec City, calling them the pride of both Quebec and Canada. He said Canadians across the country are appreciative of the work they're doing.
In the summer, the Van Doos were deployed for the first time to dangerous southern Afghanistan, amid controversy in Quebec over the Afghan mission.
With files from the Canadian Press