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Canada ends combat mission in Afghanistan

KABUL -- Canada formally ended its combat role in Afghanistan Thursday, closing a mission that has cost 157 soldiers their lives since 2002 -- casualties that shocked Canadians unaccustomed to seeing their troops die in battle.

The move adds to the burden of U.S. and Afghan troops who are trying to prevent a Taliban rebound in the militants' southern stronghold where Canadian troops had been fighting in their bloodiest conflict since the Korean War.

Canada is withdrawing its combat units as the sixth largest troop-contributing nation, behind the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Italy. Like Americans and Europeans, Canadians have grown weary of the war as it nears the 10-year mark.

While 2,850 Canadian soldiers are going home, 950 others have started streaming into Afghanistan to help train Afghan security forces to take the lead role in securing the country by 2014.

Canada passed the responsibility for two districts of Kandahar Province to U.S. forces at Kandahar Air Field during a ceremony held in a hall decorated with Canadian maple leaf flags. After remarks, handshakes and the exchange of military paperwork, troops held a moment of silence for their fallen comrades.

Since 2002, 157 Canadian troops, one diplomat, one journalist and two aid workers have been killed in Afghanistan.

The bodies of all 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.

The withdrawal of the Canadian combat troops, which will reduce the U.S.-led coalition to about 130,000 forces, comes as the Taliban continue to show their resilience, peace talks are in their infancy and governance and development are behind the security gains on the battlefield.

"It's safe to say that the country of Afghanistan remains volatile," Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay told The Associated Press. "There have been very hard-fought gains made as far as the stability and security, but it is fragile and much of the responsibility rests, of course, with the government of Afghanistan."

The United States has more than 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, far more than any other foreign country. President Barack Obama announced last month that 33,000 American troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer.

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