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Taliban direct assaults growing more rare - Canada

OTTAWA - Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan are launching fewer direct attacks on Canadian troops because they suffer heavy casualties from such operations, a senior officer said on Tuesday.

Brig-Gen Peter Atkinson, a key adviser to Canada's chief of defense staff, said the militants were largely relying on attacks using roadside bombs.

Canada has 2,500 troops in the southern city of Kandahar as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. So far 78 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan.

"The insurgents' last low-scale conventional operation was conducted this past November," Atkinson told Parliament's defense committee.

"Fewer direct engagements against ISAF and Afghan national security forces have occurred as the Taliban continue to suffer heavy losses any time they engage directly," he said.

Canada's minority Conservative government wants the troops to stay in Kandahar beyond the scheduled end-date of February 2009, but needs the support of at least one opposition party.

The best hope for Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to be striking a deal with the official opposition Liberals, who say the troops can stay longer as long as they withdraw from combat missions. The military says this is not a viable option.

Harper met with Liberal leader Stephane Dion at 4 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Tuesday for talks. A spokeswoman for Dion said he was unlikely to speak to reporters immediately after the meeting.

Atkinson said data showed the Taliban were only a major problem in 10 percent of Afghanistan's districts and tried to play down gloomy comments by some international observers who say the mission is in real trouble.

"The situation overall in Afghanistan is calmer ... the insurgency is not spreading across the country as has been written in some reports," he said.

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