Troops ready for Taliban spring offensive, O'Connor says

This year Canada is better prepared for what the melting snows in Afghanistan might bring, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor says.

Canada is well prepared in Afghanistan forthe possibility of a spring offensive by Taliban insurgents, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor says.

"If there's any return of the Taliban in any large numbers we would know instantly. We also have the whole area targeted, so we are well prepared," O'Connor said Sunday in an interview with CBC News from Ottawa.

The minister's remarks came as NATO confirmed two more soldiers had been killed in an attack in southern Afghanistan on Saturday. The Associated Press has reported that the two soldiers were British.

Both NATO and Taliban insurgents are talking about the possibility of a spring offensive, the CBC's Tom Parry reported from Kandahar.

"There has been a lull in the fighting over the winter,"Parry said.

This year Canada is better prepared for what the melting snows in Afghanistan might bring, O'Connor said.

"Last year at this time we were only just arriving with our battle group, and we had to, through the year, clear the Taliban out of all the villages, which meant a lot of heavy fighting and casualties."

In 2006, 36 Canadian military personnel lost their lives as a result of combat, attacks or explosions. As well, one diplomat died.

Canada has more than 2,000 troops in Afghanistan, the majority stationed in the south at Kandahar airfield.

A 'noble mission'

"From our point of view, this is a noble mission," O'Connor said.

"We are trying to restore a country that was taken overby a murderous regime, and we are trying to make sure that their government is stable."

O'Connor was also asked about a recent report saying that three detainees alleged to have been physically abused by Canadian soldiers have disappeared while in Afghan custody.

In the report, investigators said they do not know what happened to three men who were handed over to the Afghan national police on April 8, 2006, Maj. Robert Bell, a senior operations officer for the Canadian National Investigation Service, said in an interview with the Globe and Mail.

NIS investigators have been trying to find the men for almost a month. They were picked up near the village of Dukah, 50 kilometres west of Kandahar, on April 7, 2006.

Poor record-keeping by Afghan guards or undocumented release, which occurs regularly and often as a result of bribes, could explain their disappearance. But they may have been tortured or killed.

Human rights groups have complained that under a detainee agreement with Afghanistan, Canada can't monitor detainees after they have been handed over and can't ensure that they will not be tortured or even executed in Afghan prisons.

O'Connor said he will allow investigations to proceed into the matter and will wait to see what the findings are.

"There is no evidence whatsoever of any abuse of prisoners. In fact, the International Red Cross has said they are quite pleased with what we are doing," he said.