BRUSSELS (CP) -- Special forces belonging to Canada's JTF-2 commando unit are operating in Kandahar, making them the first Canadian troops to set foot in Afghanistan in the war on terrorism, Defence Minister Art Eggleton said Wednesday.
Forty members of the top-secret unit were sent during the last few days to Kandahar, once the spiritual home of the Taliban, Eggleton said in an interview after a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
"They are there as part of the support for the Afghans," the minister said. "They were called forward recently."
It was the first time the defence minister has confirmed where JTF-2 is operating in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, Ottawa said the unit had left Canada for the troubled region as part of the Canadian contribution to the U.S.-led war against terrorism, in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
JTF-2 is an elite special forces unit based at Dwyer Hill, Ont., just outside Ottawa. Its full name is Joint Task Force Two.
It is working with U.S. special forces in Kandahar, which fell to Afghan anti-Taliban forces more than a week ago in a chaotic surrender that allowed many Taliban fighters walk away with their guns. Mullah Mohammed Omar, supreme leader of the Taliban, also eluded capture.
U.S. marines have set up a base near Kandahar. U.S. forces were reported searching for Omar in the hills of south-central Afghanistan.
Eggleton would not give any details of the operations of the JTF-2, including whether they have seen action. He also would not say whether JTF-2 troops are deployed anywhere else in Afghanistan.
"Reconnaissance is part of what they do, but I can't go into the whole menu of possibilities because they are assault troops or commandos. They do operate in a covert fashion."
The unit was created in the early 1990s when the RCMP gave up its counter-terror role to the army.
JTF-2 is made up of some of the army's most skilled soldiers, marksmen and explosives experts, but details of its work are a deeply held secret. The military refuses to say how many soldiers are in JTF-2 or how much it costs to operate.
It is believed have about 250 troops and a budget of about $40 million.
Canada also has about 1,000 soldiers, mostly from the 3rd battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Edmonton, on seven days' notice to move to Afghanistan as part of a peacekeeping force. About 150-200 of them are on 48-hour notice to move as an advance party, and seven are on 24-hour notice to conduct a reconnaissance.
But the JTF-2 is on a separate mission.
"They are there with similar kind of people, such as the Delta Force of the United States," Eggleton said. "This is quite different from the stabilization force."
Canada has sent several warships to the Arabian Sea to escort aircraft carriers and amphibious troop ships engaged in the fighting in Afghanistan.
Three Canadian Hercules transport planes and two Aurora patrol planes are also earmarked for the region. Ottawa is hoping to reach agreement soon to use air bases in the United Arab Emirates.