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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Three Canadian soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday when their armored vehicle was attacked by militants, in what Canada's top general acknowledged as a worrisome jump in direct violence.
Five other soldiers were injured in the same incident, two of them seriously. The military gave few details but said the men had not been killed by a roadside bomb.
So far 96 Canadian soldiers have died since Ottawa deployed troops to Afghanistan in late 2002. Canada has around 2,500 soldiers based in the southern city of Kandahar on a mission that is due to end in 2011.
"The soldiers were conducting a security patrol when the attack occurred," said Brigadier-General Denis Thompson, who commands the Canadian force in Afghanistan.
"They returned fire, both with small arms and they attempted to return fire using other assets as well," he told a televised news conference in Kandahar.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to the SITE Institute, a U.S.-based terrorism monitoring service. It said that Canadian and Dutch forces were targeted in Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces. The statement said a total of 16 Canadian soldiers were killed in two Kandahar districts.
Two of the dead were 21 and the other was 23 years old. Thompson said they had all been coming to the end of their scheduled tours of duty.
Two weeks ago three Canadian soldiers died in a bomb blast in the same area.
With Canadians expected to vote in a national election next month, the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, and rising death toll among the country's soldiers, stands to be a big campaign issue for the government of Stephen Harper.
Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Canada's top soldier, said the latest attack pointed to a disturbing trend of direct attacks by Taliban militants.
"This attack is worrisome, in the kind of sophistication of that attack," he told reporters at a conference of Western Hemisphere defense ministers in Banff, Alberta.
Natynczyk said the military has not completed its investigation of the incident.
"The security situation in this campaign season, the fighting season, is tough, and we are seeing sophisticated capabilities in terms of training and proficiency of the Taliban," he said.
"At the same time, we're learning, we're adapting and trying to get ahead of the Taliban."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government knew Canadian soldiers would be in harm's way when Canada joined the force in Afghanistan seven years ago.
"We have never told anybody anything other than this is a very dangerous, very difficult mission," Harper told a televised news conference in Windsor, Ontario.
Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Jeffrey Jones in Banff; editing by Rob Wilson and Sami Aboudi