Ottawa stumbles over transfer of Afghan prisoners

Fri Jan 25, 2008 5:42pm EST
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By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government stumbled on Friday over a decision to halt soldiers from handing over Afghan detainees to local authorities, first appearing to blame the military for not telling ministers and later withdrawing the remarks.

The incident is the latest controversy to affect Canada's 2,500-strong combat mission in southern Afghanistan, where 78 soldiers have died.

Polls show Canadians are split over the mission, which Ottawa wants to extend beyond the scheduled pull-out date of February 2009, and opposition parties accuse Ottawa of mismanagement.

The Conservative government -- which for months dismissed allegations that prisoners captured by Canadians had been abused in Afghan jails -- has been on the defensive since it emerged on Wednesday that the transfer of detainees had been halted in early November because of torture fears.

The chief spokeswoman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a newspaper interview published on Friday that military officials had not informed the government. A few hours later she withdrew her comments, saying she should have kept quiet.

"I misspoke," Sandra Buckler told Reuters, but declined to say whether her initial remarks had been accurate.

The leader of the official opposition Liberal Party mocked the idea that ministers had been left in the dark, saying he had been told of the decision on detainees while on a trip to Afghanistan earlier this month.

"If you cannot believe them on something as important as torture, when will you be able to believe them?" Stephane Dion told reporters.   Continued...