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A team of six Canadian snipers shot dead heavily armed Taliban or al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan over the past week - the first confirmed enemy killings in combat by Canadian troops since the Korean War.

Speaking about the fighting as part of Operation Anaconda, Vice-Admiral Greg Maddison said the snipers "suppressed enemy mortar and heavy machine-gun positions with deadly accuracy."

That information emerged Wednesday as 600 Canadian and U.S. soldiers launched a new combat mission, called Operation Harpoon, in eastern Afghanistan. Under Canadian command, the soldiers were flown in by helicopter from the Bagram air base, up to a mountainous area where they will be chasing down fleeing Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.

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The coalition troops encountered no resistance as they set up their positions early in the day, getting ready for a mission that will last two to seven days.

Canadian officials estimate that there are fewer than 100 enemy fighters hiding in caves and mountains in the area that they call the Whale Back.

It was during the Operation Anaconda phase that Canadian snipers felled enemy fighters while defending U.S. troops that were under fire.

"As the American battalion was moving down the ridge and dealing with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters that they were encountering, the snipers were there to provide defensive capability," Adm. Maddison said.

He would not say how many enemy fighters the snipers killed or provide any other details of the incident.

There have been no Canadian casualties in the operations so far.

While Canadians soldiers have killed people during peacekeeping missions, the last time the country's military used lethal force in combat was in 1953.

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Operation Harpoon is commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Stogran of the Canadian Forces. He is leading 500 soldiers from the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and about 100 U.S. troops from the 10th Mountain Division.

The mission is called a "mopping up" - finding and eliminating pockets of resistance after a major operation. Hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda members were killed as part of the U.S.-led Operation Anaconda, which is winding down. Some fighters survived, and have fled northwest to the Whale Back.

Commodore Jean-Pierre Thiffault, the top Canadian officer at Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said that Operation Harpoon is "a combat operation to clear out the remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban pockets in caves and other sites in the mountainous areas south of Gardez, near the Whale Back."

Adm. Maddison said this will be a risky endeavour in a dangerous area: mountainous and rough terrain that is filled with caves and holes where the enemy might be hiding.

"It is not a benign environment. Whilst our folks are well-trained and they're well led, and they're prepared for this sort of mission, the risks are high," he said.

Operation Harpoon started with intense bombing of the Whale Back area by U.S. bombers, followed by the "insertion" of Canadian troops under the protection of gunship helicopters.

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"There was a heavy amount of air cover that was used to soften the terrain, if you will," Adm. Maddison said.

Operation Harpoon is much smaller than Operation Anaconda, although both are happening in the same general area.

Operation Anaconda focused on an area called Shahi Kot, in which hundreds of Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters had congregated.

Two teams of Canadian snipers, or sharpshooters, are with the coalition fighting in Afghanistan, both from the Princess Patricia's regiment.

Snipers are part of a battalion's reconnaissance platoon. Their job is to figure out how to get as close to the enemy as possible. They are experts in camouflage and concealment, and can pick off human prey with rifles from as far away as 900 metres, or the length of nine football fields.

Canada's snipers - there are only a few dozen - learn their trade at the Combat Training Centre at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick.

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In addition to six snipers, the Canadian contribution to Operation Anaconda included an indefinite number of commando troops from the Joint Task Force 2 and 10 others members of the Princess Patricia's regiment.

The JTF2 members are back at their home base now. It is Canadian policy to release almost no information on their activities. Adm. Maddison said the JTF2 engaged in combat, but didn't say if they killed anyone.

Canada has contributed 2,400 troops so far to the war on terrorism. It has almost 900 soldiers in Afghanistan, while the others are working on ships and planes in the area.

Canadian Alliance MP Leon Benoit - a frequent critic of Canada's defence policy - praised the work of troops in Afghanistan.

"I'm proud of the snipers and the important role they provided in giving cover to the other soldiers moving in, and I'm proud of the mission led by Canadians."



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