The bodies of three Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan this weekend are headed home after a solemn ceremony Sunday evening at Kandahar Airfield.

Comrades carried the bodies of Cpl. Thomas James Hamilton, Pte. John Michael Roy Curwin and Pte. Justin Peter Jones onto a military plane bound for CFB Trenton.

The soldiers were killed around 9 a.m. Saturday local time, after their armoured vehicle struck an improvised explosive device on a highway west of Kandahar City.

All three were with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, RCR based in Gagetown, New Brunswick. A fourth soldier was injured in the blast and is in fair condition at the base's military hospital.

The ceremony was attended by fewer soldiers than usual as a security measure in the wake of numerous rocket attacks that hit the base earlier in the day.

Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, commander of Task Force Kandahar, told reporters that if the rockets were meant to intimidate Canadians into not conducting the ramp ceremony, the strategy didn't work.

"If that was their intent they clearly failed," Thompson said. "We still held the ceremony, we still sent our brothers home with the dignity that they deserved."

After the ceremony, Lt. Col. Dana Woodworth, commanding officer of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, offered his condolences to the families of the soldiers and praised them as "fine Canadians and courageous men."

The slain soldiers were members of the Quick Reaction Force, or QRF, a team of soldiers that are usually called out to emergency situations within Kandahar City or just outside city limits, Globe and Mail reporter Graeme told CTV Newsnet on Sunday morning.

The soldiers were responding to a call that a bomb was being planted along the highway that runs from Kandahar city to the border of Helmand province.

"So they were going out essentially to protect their colleagues, who drive convoys on that road on a regular basis and rely on that stretch of highway as a safe passage out to other

Canadian and American bases further out from Kandahar city," Smith said.

Hamilton, or "Hammy," was on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan and had a young daughter, named Annabella. He had previously served in Haiti.

On Sunday, Hamilton's mother, Cindy Higgins, released a statement about her son, who was born in Truro, N.S., and grew up in Upper Musquodoboit.

"Thomas was a kind and loving man who loved to tease, he enjoyed fishing, who strongly believed in the mission and volunteered for his third tour in Afghanistan," she said.

Curwin was described as a "family man," who had three children and considered his wife, Laura Mae, of Oromocto, N.B., his best friend.

His parents released a statement saying their son was "forever the 'good guy,' always there to do what was right, what was needed and always willing to give whatever he could for his family and friends."

Jones, or "Jonesy" as he was called, of Baie Verte, N.L., was known for his kindness and his love of the guitar, Thompson said.

His great aunt, Alice Jones, said her young nephew had been back home to Newfoundland just over a week before he died to celebrate an early Christmas, his own birthday and his grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary.

She said Jones had looked forward to returning to duty.

"He loved it, I think. It was an adventure for him. That was his dream to join the military," she said.

Prime minister offers sympathies

Early Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement offering his "deepest sympathies" to the families and wishing a quick recovery to the injured soldier.

"This tragic incident demonstrates the considerable risk faced by the exceptional men and women of the Canadian Forces as they work to promote freedom, security and democracy in Afghanistan."

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the fallen soldiers had died "helping to ensure a brighter future for the Afghan people."

IEDs have become the weapon of choice for Taliban insurgents, and more than half of the Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan have been killed by such devices.

"At the end of the day, you can't build a vehicle big enough to defend against every IED that's out there," Thompson said on Sunday after the ramp ceremony had finished.

"There isn't really a technical solution. The solution is to get at the IED network, to get at the people that plant these bombs, to get at the terrorists that are behind this. And the way to do that is to win over the population."

Retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie told CTV Newsnet that even though the fatal attack followed another IED blast that killed three other Canadian soldiers on Dec. 5, it was not necessarily a sign of increased Taliban aggression.

"These were the first two attacks, or the first IED attacks we've had since mid-September," he said Sunday.

"Our guys have intercepted a hell of a lot of them and diffused them during that period of time, including taking down some of the factories and mud-shacks where they're put together," he said.

"So it could be just coincidence -- a very unfortunate and tragic coincidence -- but I don't think it indicates, all of a sudden, a Taliban that's going on the offensive more than it has in the last three or four months."

With files from The Canadian Press