Two Canadian soldiers were killed yesterday when a suicide bomber ploughed into their convoy on the eve of a two-day Nato summit expected to be dominated by the violence in Afghanistan.
As 26 presidents and prime ministers prepared to gather in Riga, the Latvian capital, troops on the ground were arranging yet another repatriation ceremony for those lost in the bloodiest period since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.
In the giant military airfield outside Kandahar, the Stars and Stripes, lowered on Saturday when a US soldier was killed in Uruzgan province, was raised as the Canadian flag was moved to half mast to mark the latest deaths.
The past few days have seen a peak in violence after a period of relative calm. On Sunday 15 people were killed and 24 wounded by a suicide bomber in a restaurant in the south-eastern province of Paktika. In the British sector near Gereshk, Helmand, troops killed the driver of a car which sped towards their convoy, ignoring calls to stop, flares and warning shots.
Yesterday's deaths happened as the Canadians were travelling towards the east of Kandahar city. A suicide bomber in a car hit an armoured vehicle in the convoy, killing the two soldiers and injuring a civilian bystander, believed to have been a camel herder. The blast, reportedly claimed by the Taliban, also killed 15 camels that happened to be near by.
Capt Andre Salloum said: "It is hard for every soldier. It is something completely new to us and the people of Canada. It is a long time since we have seen so many caskets come home."
It was the 102nd suicide attack in Afghanistan this year, compared with 17 in the previous 12 months. It underscored the dramatic increase in fighting in which 36 British and 34 Canadians have died, as well as a shift in tactics towards terrorist violence associated with Iraq.
Squadron Leader Jason Chalk, spokesman in Kandahar, said: "This is not an Afghan tactic. They have a courageous and honourable tradition of fighting. Suicide bombs are neither courageous nor honourable, which would suggest it is coming from somewhere else."
Yet it is the Afghan people who are suffering the brunt of the attacks. While 15 Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) servicemen have been killed by suicide bombers this year, 226 local residents have died. The United Nations estimates that 3,800 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence in 2006, a quarter of whom have been civilians.
The bloodshed has seriously hampered development and reconstruction, raised fears that the Taliban are gaining support in the countryside, and reinforced perceptions that President Hamid Karzai has little control outside Kabul.
At the Nato summit in Riga today, Britain and the United States are expected to emphasise their determination to stay the course. But the alliance has been fighting the toughest ground war in its 57-year history since its 32,800-strong force moved into the southern provinces and many nations are resisting appeals to increase troop numbers.Reuse content