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Prime minister's first trip abroad in support of troops

Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to visit soldiers in Afghanistan to demonstrate support for the military at a time when opinion polls show most Canadians want their troops pulled out.

Visiting the Canadian military camps in Kandahar would be Harper's first international trip as prime minister. No official plans or dates have been announced yet.

This would also send a signal to the military and the international community about Canada's commitment to helping to fight terrorism.

The new government plans an additional $5.3-billion in military spending over five years and expanding the forces by 13,000 full-time and 10,000 reserve troops.

On Friday, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry battle group assumed control of the volatile southern Afghan province from U.S. Task Force Gun Devil.

A Canadian diplomat was killed and three Edmonton-based soldiers were seriously injured last month when a suicide bomber attacked their convoy in the region.

Harper's visit would have "an extremely powerful positive moral effect," said Lt. Col. Ian Hope.

"They probably would like to see a few hockey players, too," he added.

Canadians suspected in slayings

Two unidentified Canadians are suspected in the execution-style slaying of a wealthy Toronto-area couple in Mexico.

Domenico Ianiero, 59, a real estate agent, and his wife, Annunziata, 55, of Woodbridge, Ontario, were found slain in their hotel room at the Barcelo Maya luxury resort south of Cancun. They were there for the marriage of their daughter, Lily.

The suspects stayed at the hotel and returned to Canada the day of killings, Mexican investigators said. A motive isn't known and police said nothing was missing from the Ianieros' room.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said the "random violence" is troubling, casting doubt on the theory the killers were from Canada.

Mexican tourism officials are urging Canadians not to cancel their vacation plans saying they have nothing to fear.

News in brief

+ Trade Minister David Emerson continues to weather a political storm in Vancouver after defecting to the Conservatives although elected as a Liberal last month. Voters are demanding a by-election. Emerson was a leading softwood-lumber executive.

+ Marshall Rothstein, 65, of Winnipeg, has been named a nominee to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Federal Court of Appeal judge will face a first-ever public hearing, a new condition of the Conservative government, before Prime Minister Harper confirms his appointment to the country's highest court.

+ A province-wide strike by Ontario municipal workers was averted with a last-minute contract agreement. The Canadian Union of Public Employees called off the strike after the province agreed to review contentious pension changes.

Facts and figures

Canada's annual inflation rate climbed to 2.8 percent last month from 2.2 percent because of higher prices for gasoline (up 19.2 percent from a year ago) and natural gas (up 26 percent).

The increase, along with strong economic data, suggests the Bank of Canada will keep raising its key interest rate moderately. The rate remains at 3.5 percent while the prime lending rate is 5.25 percent.

The Canadian dollar is lower at 86.71 cents U.S. while the U.S. dollar returns $1.1532 Canadian, before bank exchange fees.

Stock markets are higher, with the Toronto composite index at 11,839 points and the Canadian Venture Exchange 2,540 points.

Lotto 6-49: (Wednesday) 8, 26, 31, 35, 36, 47; bonus 24. (Feb. 18) 17, 20, 24, 28, 31, 41; bonus 25.

Regional briefs

+ Edwin Yue, 19, a convenience store clerk who was killed in a Winnipeg robbery was awaiting trial himself for robbing stores. Court documents show Yue, who was out on bail, was accused of robbing seven convenience and two jewelry stores. Prison parolee David Cote, 28, was charged with second-degree murder in Yue's death.

+ Just-retired Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm must appear before a legislative committee to testify about a government loan given to close friends. At issue is a $350,000 "forgiveable" loan to Magic Valley amusement park. Former Economic Development Minister Ernie Fage must testify about a $250,000 loan given to S&J Potato Farms, a company that leases land from his family.

+ The Alberta government will make a "major offensive" against cancer. Planned is a "significant, long-term, strategic investment in prevention, early screening and research." The government also said it wants to improve access to medical procedures.

Jim Fox can be reached at canadareporthotmail.com.

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