Canada's death toll in Afghanistan surpassed the grim milestone of 100 on Friday after a roadside bomb killed three soldiers.
Brig. Gen. Denis Thompson, Canada's top military commander in Afghanistan, said the soldiers were riding in an armored vehicle on patrol west of Kandahar city when they struck an improvised explosive device.
Canada has now lost 100 soldiers and one diplomat in Afghanistan since it first sent troops there after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Thompson acknowledged the milestone but defended the mission, saying the Canadian military is trying to prevent militants from terrorizing the Afghan people.
"Canada lost three fine soldiers today," Thompson said in a televised news conference from Afghanistan. "Already there is talk of numbers and milestones, but it is my hope that the focus remains on the lives and sacrifices of these brave soldiers as they serve Canada in their effort to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan."
He said two other soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously, in a separate incident while on foot patrol.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was headed to the Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in Ontario, for a Christmas event when news broke that the three members of 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, which is based in the small town, had been killed.
"These are very special people who have put their lives on the line in the service of their fellow human beings and in their devotion to our country," Harper told the crowd.
Harper vowed during his September election campaign to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2011. He has said Canadians do not have the appetite to keep their soldiers in Afghanistan longer.
Canada has 2,500 soldiers in Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold that has again emerged as the epicenter of violence. The country increased its deployment in Afghanistan after declining a U.S. request to send troops to Iraq.
The milestone could rekindle debate about Canada's role in that that had largely dissipated after Parliament voted in March to extend the mission to 2011.
"In the coming days there will surely be discussion of the number of victims that have died," Thompson said.
He said not doing anything to prevent militants from terrorizing Afghans is not an option.
"During my short time in Kandahar province a female civilian member of our task force has been set on fire. A man has had his eyes gouged out in front of his family. Children have been used as suicide bombers against the security forces. A busload of young men have been executed in cold blood and young girls have had acid thrown in their face on their way to school," Thompson said.
"Canadians serving here in Afghanistan are not the type of people to sit idly by," the general said.
Canadians have been increasingly concerned about the toll in Afghanistan in recent years. Canadian soldiers who die in Afghanistan are flown to Ontario and driven to a Toronto morgue before being returned to their hometowns. Canadians often line the overpasses of Highway 401 — now known as the "Highway of Heroes" — to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers.
There are some 53,000 NATO-led troops from 27 countries serving in Afghanistan, including 32,000 U.S. troops. One American serviceman died in Afghanistan in November, a dramatic drop from earlier months; there have been 148 U.S. military deaths in all this year.
The U.S. military is beginning a massive building effort in Afghanistan to house the roughly 20,000 additional troops that are expected to begin pouring in early next year, a top U.S. military officer said Friday.