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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The new secretary-general of NATO said on Thursday he wanted Canada to extend its military mission in southern Afghanistan beyond the planned 2011 withdrawal date, Canadian news organizations reported.
The remarks by Anders Fogh Rasmussen are the most pointed yet by NATO, whose senior members are quietly working behind the scenes to persuade Ottawa to change its mind about ending the 2,700-strong combat mission in Kandahar in 2011.
Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon quickly reiterated that Ottawa would not change its mind.
Canada's minority Conservative government, which has long complained that Canadian troops are bearing a disproportionate burden in Afghanistan, vows it will abide by a Parliamentary vote to end the mission in 2011.
"Of course I'm not going to interfere with domestic politics in individual allied nations, but seen from an alliance point of view, I would strongly regret if that became the final outcome of the Canadian considerations," two Canadian television networks quoted Rasmussen as saying in Kandahar.
"At the end of the day it is a question of our own security -- we cannot allow Afghanistan once again to become a safe haven for terrorists -- and I also think it is in Canada's interest to ensure a peaceful and stable Afghanistan," CTV and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp quoted him as saying.
Diplomats say some NATO member nations -- in particular the United States -- have privately told Canada they would welcome a decision to maintain a military presence there beyond 2011.
Canada has lost 127 soldiers so far since first sending troops to Afghanistan in late 2002. Senior military officials say the army is worn out and will need at least 18 months to recover once the mission ends.
"The comments made by the NATO secretary general, I understand, are first an acknowledgment of the great work Canada has done in Kandahar," Cannon said in comments relayed by a spokeswoman.
"On the other comments, however, our government is abiding by the motion passed in Parliament in 2008 -- that is that our combat forces will leave by 2011. We are staying the course."
Some military observers and diplomats speculate that once the combat mission has ended, some Canadian troops might remain behind to help train their Afghan counterparts.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson