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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government stumbled on Friday over a decision to halt soldiers from handing over Afghan detainees to local authorities, first appearing to blame the military for not telling ministers and later withdrawing the remarks.
The incident is the latest controversy to affect Canada's 2,500-strong combat mission in southern Afghanistan, where 78 soldiers have died.
Polls show Canadians are split over the mission, which Ottawa wants to extend beyond the scheduled pull-out date of February 2009, and opposition parties accuse Ottawa of mismanagement.
The Conservative government -- which for months dismissed allegations that prisoners captured by Canadians had been abused in Afghan jails -- has been on the defensive since it emerged on Wednesday that the transfer of detainees had been halted in early November because of torture fears.
The chief spokeswoman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a newspaper interview published on Friday that military officials had not informed the government. A few hours later she withdrew her comments, saying she should have kept quiet.
"I misspoke," Sandra Buckler told Reuters, but declined to say whether her initial remarks had been accurate.
The leader of the official opposition Liberal Party mocked the idea that ministers had been left in the dark, saying he had been told of the decision on detainees while on a trip to Afghanistan earlier this month.
"If you cannot believe them on something as important as torture, when will you be able to believe them?" Stephane Dion told reporters.
"When the spokeswoman of the prime minister (claimed) the prime minister was not aware, that the government was not aware, I knew it was a lie ... clearly this government is in complete confusion," Dion said.
CTV television said General Rick Hillier, the chief of the Canadian defense staff, had protested to Harper's office over the initial remarks by Buckler. Hillier's spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the transfers have stopped, the minority government is opposing a legal bid by human rights groups who want to ban the practice outright.
An independent panel on the future of the mission recommended this week that Canada withdraw its troops next year unless NATO sent in more soldiers.
Harper -- who wants the mission to stay on until at least 2011 -- said on Friday that the report was "strong, balanced and realistic" but did not say what he would do. He has promised to let Parliament have the final say.
"On a matter of national and global security like this, we will never make a decision based on polls. We will make our decision based on what is right," he told a party rally.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Rob Wilson