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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A surge in gang violence is hurting Vancouver's image as it prepares to host the 2010 Olympics, the city's mayor said on Friday.
Police publicly acknowledged for the first time that the Vancouver area was in the midst of a "gang war" between several organized crime groups fighting over the illegal drug market.
While the violence is still tame compared to that seen in other parts of the world, it is not something Vancouver is used to dealing with, Mayor Gregor Robertson said.
"Vancouver has never been known for this, so in terms of our international reputation it is a problem, and we need to bear down and deal with it," Robertson told a news conference announcing another arrest of a gang leader.
The city on Canada's Pacific coast will host the Winter Games in February 2010.
"It is very unfortunate that we are beginning to look like most of the big cities around the world, certainly in the United States, that deal with significant violent crime," he said.
Gang-related shootings have become an almost daily occurrence in Vancouver and surrounding suburbs since mid-January, but police have refused to officially describe it as a gang war.
"Well let's get serious. There is a gang war and it's brutal," Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu said.
Local police say the violence largely involves mid-level gangs that are fighting over the turf they control to sell cocaine and produce marijuana -- much of which is eventually exported to the United States.
National law officials have also drawn a link to the violent drug war being waged in Mexico, which has driven up the price of cocaine and made it even more profitable for the Canadian gangsters to sell.
Police have changed tactics in recent weeks, attempting to arrest known gangsters on even minor charges in an attempt to disrupt their activities and prevent more serious crimes from being carried out.
The new approach reflects the difficulty of getting witnesses to co-operate in investigations, officials say.
The rise in violence prompted the Canadian government last month to propose a toughening of gang-related laws, a move that opposition parties say they will support. British Columbia says the province will also hire more police.
Editing by Rob Wilson