Six Canadian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday, bolstering opposition to the UN mission to quell unrest in the war-torn nation and arousing renewed demands for an early withdrawal of troops.
The attack was the deadliest explosion on NATO forces since six Canadian soldiers were killed after a mine exploded on April 8.
"At approximately 11 o'clock this morning, six Canadian soldiers and one local Afghan interpreter were killed when the vehicle they were driving in struck an improvised explosive device about 20km southwest of Kandahar City," Brigadier General Tim Grant said from Kandahar.
The deaths took to 105 the number of foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year, most of them in combat.
Canada's death toll, meanwhile, now stands at 66 soldiers and one senior diplomat since 2002. Nineteen of them died in similar blasts this year.
Grant said that, while he was "greatly saddened" by the deaths, the attack "will not diminish our resolve and our determination to bring to Afghanistan a peaceful land for the children of this country."
Back home, however, opposition parties and public opinion are not seemingly with him.
"This escalating death toll of soldiers and of civilians in Afghanistan [underlines] that this mission is going in the wrong way," New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton told reporters.
"Canadians want to go a different direction in Afghanistan. It's time the prime minister started listening to them."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a proponent of the operation, had said last month that Canada's military mission would end under its current commitment to NATO in February 2009, unless parliament voted to extend it.
His comments followed talks with visiting NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer who urged Canada to prolong its mission in Afghanistan.
But Liberal leader Stephane Dion repeated on Wednesday: "This consensus will never exist."
"We think the prime minister should announce to NATO and to the government of Afghanistan that our combat mission in Kandahar will end in February of 2009 in order to give to our allies 18 months to prepare," he said.
A recent poll indicated that most Canadians -- almost 70 percent -- agree with Dion in wanting the country's troops to return home in 2009.
Layton went further, saying: "We believe that two more years is two years too long ... If the mission is wrong in 2009, why isn't it also wrong in 2007?"
Most of Canada's 2,500 troops deployed with NATO's 40,000-strong International Security Assistance Force are based in Kandahar which is at the heart of an insurgency by Taliban militants.
Grant said that the latest incident "occurred while the soldiers were returning from a joint operation with the Afghan national army."
A dozen vehicles in a convoy were headed back to their "forward operating base" after searching for militants in a local village, he said.
The attack came only a few weeks before the next Canadian troop deployment is scheduled to leave for Afghanistan.