KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - Canada suffered its first-ever death of female combat soldier during a lengthy firefight with Taliban insurgents Wednesday evening.
Capt. Nichola Goddard, of 1st Royal Canadian Horse Artillery based in Shilo, Man., was killed in action at 6:55 p.m. local time, 24 kilometres west of Kandahar city, said Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, commander of the multinational brigade based in Kandahar.
Goddard's age and hometown were not immediately available. She was married, with no children.
"Our hearts, our prayers and our sympathies go out to the family of Nichola Goddard," said Fraser, standing in front of a Canadian flag at half-mast.
"It's a hard day but it's also a day of achievements here. The government of Afghanistan and the Afghan national security forces have had a good successful day. There was significant Taliban casualties both killed and captured."
"Unfortunately, the cost today was the life of Nichola."
Although Canadian women lost their lives in action in both the First and Second World Wars, Goddard was the first to do so in a combat role.
"I believe it's safe to say she was the first woman in a combat-arms military occupation (such as artillery, infantry, or armoured) killed in front-line combat," said Lieut. Morgan Bailey, a media liaison officer in Ottawa.
Goddard was serving as a forward artillery observer, helping to target the artillery guns by observing where the shells fell.
Combat roles were first opened to Canadian women in 1990.
Canadian forces were acting in support of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army, who had received information a large number of Taliban fighters were massing in the Panjwai district, about 24 kilometres west of Kandahar, an area that has seen off-on fighting for weeks, said Fraser.
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, to which Goddard had been attached, were supporting the Afghans by forming a ring around the battle area, Fraser said.
"We were there to back them up and support them, providing outer cordons. All the inner work was being done by the Afghan security forces."
Coalition air support was also involved.
Details were still sketchy around Goddard's death, said Fraser.
"There was a firefight out there and sometime during the firefight she was killed."
Fighting had stopped Wednesday night but Fraser said the operation was expected to continue Thursday.
As debate about Canada's mission raged on Parliament Hill, Fraser said the commitment of Goddard and all Canadian soldiers has never wavered.
"This is an important mission," he said.
"This a mission that the soldiers believe in. This is a mission that the soldiers continue to go out every day and prosecute with passion."
"Nichola was doing a job that she loved. Everyone around me said that she loved what she was doing."
"She's indicative of all the men and women serving over here in Afghanistan and Canadians should be proud of the work that their soldiers are doing in a very difficult environment."
"But the Afghan people deserve no less than our continued support to see through this fight to its end."
Five women were killed in action in the Second World War. The First World War saw 29 female combat deaths.
Goddard has become the 17th Canadian killed in Afghanistan since 2002: one diplomat and 16 soldiers, including four who died in the friendly-fire bombing by a U.S. plane.
Her death came on a day when Canadian troops tried to relax and enjoy themselves.
Earlier that afternoon, the military had relaxed its strict no-alcohol policy allowing soldiers two bottles of beer apiece to sip in the hot Afghan sun and the evening saw a four-hour musical performance by Canadian stars such as singer Michelle Wright.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed the regret of a mourning country.
"Captain Goddard died while helping to bring peace, stability and democracy to a troubled region of the world," Harper said in a statement.
"She and the other men and women who serve in Afghanistan are involved in a difficult and dangerous mission. They are serving our country and its people with distinction."
"Our nation will not forget their sacrifice."
Manitoba Premier Gary Doer also expressed regret.
"On behalf of the people of Manitoba, we respect her life of bravery and honour on behalf of Canada and we offer our condolences to the family and to the community of Shilo," he told CJOB radio in Winnipeg.
Canada has about 2,300 troops in Afghanistan, most of them in Kandahar, as part of an international effort to help the Kabul government assert its authority and fight Taliban insurgents, who have been engaging the U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces in hostilities in many parts of the country.
Kandahar, in the south, is regarded as a hotbed of insurgent attacks and the spiritual home of the extremist Taliban movement.
The Taliban were ousted from power by U.S.-led forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The Taliban regime was blamed for harbouring Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization while it was in power.