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Canadian PM meets troops in Afghanistan

Written by: Staff
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KABUL, Mar 13 (Reuters) Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Canadian troops in Afghanistan today and is due to travel to Kabul for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, officials said.

Harper's visit has been shrouded in secrecy and Canadian embassy officials declined to confirm he was in the country. But a Canadian military official, Captain Robert Frank, said Harper had visited troops in the southern city of Kandahar.

Canada has 2,300 troops in the insurgency-plagued south of Afghanistan and some Canadian opposition politicians have questioned their mission.

In the last two weeks, two Canadian soldiers have died in traffic accidents near Kandahar. Several others were injured in a suicide bombing, while one soldier was attacked and seriously wounded by a man wielding an axe.

A Canadian diplomat was killed in a suicide bombing in Kandahar in January.

Insurgents have stepped up attacks on foreign troops in recent months, in the hope, analysts say, of weakening resolve to get involved in the country in places such as Canada, as well as Britain and the Netherlands, which are also sending more troops.

Taliban insurgents have been fighting since their ouster in late 2001 to expel foreign troops and defeat Karzai's Western-backed government.

Last week Harper rejected demands for a parliamentary debate on the mission, saying it would undermine the troops.

Canada's two left-leaning federal parties say legislators need to discuss why Canadian troops, traditionally known for taking part in peacekeeping operations, are now involved in a dangerous military mission.

The decision to contribute troops to the NATO mission was made by the then ruling Liberals last year without much debate.

Harper, whose right-of-center Conservatives won a January. 23 election, said he had no intention of reviewing a decision taken by the previous Liberal government.

Most of the 2,300 troops, based in Kandahar as part of a NATO mission, were originally due to return by early 2007. Canadian officials now say this return date could be delayed.

In the wake of the September. 11, 2001 attacks, Canada sent 2,000 troops to Kabul to participate in a NATO-led stabilisation force. A total of 10 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan since then.

Harper was due to meet Karzai in Kabul tomorrow, an official in the president's office said.

REUTERS SB PM1732

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