By Bill Graveland

MAS'UM GHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - Members of the Royal Canadian Regiment raised their glasses Thursday and marked their 123rd anniversary with a ceremonial toast against the backdrop of war.

"To my dear friends, to all present and to all those who departed and in honour of 123 years' service for the country - to the regiment: Pro Patria (For Country)," said Col. Jim Vance, commander of 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, the senior officer at the ceremony.

"Pro Patria," intoned the assembled troops as they raised glasses containing a mixture of dark rum, water and brown sugar.

The drink is a symbol of the Ortona Crossroads, a lengthy 1943 battle near Ortona, Italy, where the RCR was involved in a costly fight against the Germans. After the crossroads were finally secured, the regiment's birthday was toasted with what was available at the time - dark rum, water and brown sugar.

With Canadian troops now engaged in NATO's Operation Baaz Tsuka in Afghanistan, the parallels were obvious for the regiment, which is part of the combat team in the town of Howz-e Madad.

"We're in grapefields instead of vineyards and fighting from compound to compound in built-up areas, Ortona being one of the bloodiest battles the Canadian army experienced to that day," said Lt.-Col. Omer Lavoie, commander of the Canadian Battle Group, in his address to the troops.

"So 63 years later, a hell of a lot of similarities between what we did in Ortona and what we're doing here in Afghanistan."

Members of Charles Company Combat Team - consisting of two troops of Canadian Leopard tanks, a company of light armoured vehicles, three platoons of infantry along with Afghan troops and artillery support - remain just outside Howz-e Madad, on the north side of the Arghandab River.

"I don't want to jinx it by any means but so far so good. In the first crucial 48 hours it has gone really well," Lavoie told reporters.

"This is the first time we've projected that much combat power forward. We're one piece of the operation but certainly from the enemy perspective I think we're causing difficulties in their decision process and their command and control cycle."

There had been no direct battles between Canadian troops and Taliban insurgents believed in the area south of the town. A foot patrol Thursday found a Taliban compound with about 35 people inside but withdrew because there were women and children present.

The bulk of the Taliban are believed located about four kilometres south of Howz-e Madad. The goal of the offensive is to rid the region of hardline Taliban members. Lavoie said they've been surrounded by NATO's International Security Assistance Force - ISAF - and Afghan forces.

"We have Canadian forces, significant combat power, to the north. At the same time, we have a U.K. force to the west to strike and we have American and U.K. forces again to the south," Lavoie said. "And hemming them in on the east is another Canadian combat team. So ISAF and Afghan forces are surrounding them 360 degrees."

Afghan National Police took over a new checkpoint near the town Thursday. Canadians had prepared the ground for the checkpoint, and British engineers built on it.

"The whole operation has been unfolding exactly as per the plan. Afghan security forces are now forming an inner cordon in Howz-e Madad," Lavoie said.

"Across the road in the desert, we've actually pushed our tank squadron and infantry elements forward to send a very strong message to the insurgents that we can play either way if they choose to make it go hard."

A shura, or meeting, with village elders was held Thursday. Two containers of material aid was handed over to local residents, many of them displaced by months of fighting elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Canadian troops who has been battling the Taliban in the Panjwaii district for months have joined British, U.S. and Dutch forces in Operation Baaz Tsuka, which means Falcon Summit in the Pashto language.
It is Canada's first offensive since the Canadian-led Operation Medusa in early September that reportedly killed hundreds of Taliban militants.