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Ambushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan

HOWZ-E-MADAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The first Taliban shell struck just as Canadian and Afghan troops retreated across a dusty field in southern Afghanistan.

Master Corporal Frank Flibotte (L) helps move wounded Sergeant-Major Paul Pilote to safety while another Canadian soldier from the NATO-led coalition provides covering fire after their position was hit by a Taliban shell from an 82-millimetre recoilless rifle during an attack in Zhari district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, October 23, 2007. Picture taken October 23, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly (AFGHANISTAN)

It exploded about 5 metres (yards) from four Canadian soldiers who were training their Afghan National Army counterparts as part of NATO’s mission here.

As a photographer embedded with the Canadians, I was caught in the blast and enveloped by a cloud of dust and smoke. We scrambled for cover behind a mud wall shielding us from Taliban positions on the opposite side of the field.

The unit I was with had earlier abandoned a planned dawn ambush of Taliban fighters. It responded quickly to the attack.

I focused on taking pictures of an Afghan army soldier shooting a heavy mounted machine gun from a nearby ditch.

A shell from an 82-millimetre recoilless rifle exploded in front of him and he disappeared in the flash of light. Sand blasted me and the shockwave knocked me over.

I was sure he was dead, or at least wounded. A moment later, he bounded out of the ditch and ran towards me through the smoke, the machine gun blazing from his hip, Rambo-style.

A third shell slammed into the solid mud wall where Canadian Sergeant-Major Paul Pilote was standing, sending the soldier sprawling backwards. Stunned, and with blood spilling from his nose and mouth, Pilote crawled away from the explosion on hands and knees. I kept taking pictures through the haze.

Under fire, Canadian Master Corporal Frank Flibotte and Major Jean-Sebastien Fortin went to help Pilote.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

The battle was typical of the conflict gripping the border region with Pakistan, where at least 24 clashes between former ruling Taliban and NATO and Afghan forces occurred last month.

Fortin estimated there were between 10 to 15 Taliban attackers, most of them wearing just grubby robes and sandals. Three Taliban were killed, two wounded and three were captured.

IN THE LINE OF FIRE

Taking pictures during combat is almost a relief. The tension of waiting for “contact” to begin can seem unbearable, then there is mass confusion once things kick-off.

Working gives photographers an outlet to channel the fear and subdue the panic.

I have to think about where to be to get the correct angle and show facial expressions that tell the story -- what’s the light doing, what might happen next, but also, where can I position myself safely?

There’s no sure answer to that last one.

I moved back from the wall taking shell hits. I was reluctant to leave the cover of a ditch until I realised the Afghan troops had fled and the Canadians were busy with Pilote on the other side of an open dirt road in the line of fire.

Afraid of being left behind, I scrambled over the wall of a nearby compound and moved through a garden blooming with purple flowers. I was still cut off from the Canadians by the open road and needed to get pictures of them treating Pilote.

A Canadian armoured RG-31 vehicle raced to fill the space in the firing line, so I ran behind it towards the wounded Pilote.

“Get back behind the RG,” shouted Fortin.

Pilote’s wounds were not serious and I photographed Flibotte and Fortin helping him to the RG-31 while others gave cover.

We retreated to a nearby base, where we heard the sound of heavy fighting as another company came under attack.

“It shows how all the military might in the world can’t stand up to 10 ragtag fighters who believe God is on their side,” a fellow journalist said afterwards.

You’re always prepared for the worst. But the suddenness, the size and the proximity of the explosions was more intense in Howz-e-Madad than anything I’d experienced previously.

We were lucky. Pilote suffered minor shrapnel wounds and hearing loss and an Afghan hit in the shoulder is recovering.

Under fire, you swear you’ll never go out there again. But the soldiers have to do it, and that’s who we are here to cover.

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