Canadian soldiers hand out small gifts to villagers in southern Afghanistan, trying to build a relationship with the people they're trying to protect. But their efforts may be undermined by NATO mishaps that have killed several civilians.

"I believe the single thing that we have done wrong -- and we are striving hard to improve on next year -- is killing innocent civilians," said Brigadier Richard Nugee, chief spokesperson for NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

In one of the worst incidents, 31 people died last October during NATO air strikes in the Panjwaii district, during Operation Medusa. While Canadians were involved in the offensive, they did not have strike jets.

And just two weeks ago, the family of an elderly Afghan man expressed their outrage after he was killed by a Canadian soldier at a checkpoint.

NATO did not have an exact number for the amount civilians killed by coalition forces, but said more have died from Taliban attacks.

There was a 600 per cent increase in Taliban suicide and roadside bombings from 2005 to 2006, and those attacks were responsible for 206 civilian deaths.

Those same attacks also killed 18 NATO troops and 54 Afghan security personnel.

NATO said it's working hard to reduce civilian casualties during the latest major offensive, named Operation Baaz Tsuka.

The goal of the mission has been to either kill or force hardline leaders to leave the Panjwaii-Zahre district, once a Taliban stronghold, where Canadian troops have been involved in deadly conflicts for the last several months.

Troops have also asked village elders to find local men able to joint Afghan National Auxiliary Police detachments. Communicating with elders also gives coalition forces a better idea of where Taliban militants are hiding, to cut down on needless attacks that endanger civilians.

"If you look at Operation Baaz Tsuka and the way we have been conducting ourselves there, we've learned the lessons from Op Medusa, we've learned the lessons of the previous five years as well," Squadron Leader Dave Marsh, a British spokesman for the western alliance, told The Canadian Press.

"The fact you begin to build up a better picture of what's where, what the movements are and everything else that's going on in that place by speaking to the locals, by speaking to the elders in particular."

Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant, commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, said dealing with village elders is providing troops with a better sense of security concerns. It appears as if the situation is improving.

"So when you take all that information together it paints a very clear picture that things are getting better from a security standpoint," said Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant.

With a report by CTV's Murray Oliver in southern Afghanistan and files from The Canadian Press