The Australian prime minister has warned his country to expect more combat casualties in Afghanistan following the death of a Special Forces commando.  He was killed in southern Uruzgan province in a gun battle with Taliban insurgents.  From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says that 2008 in Afghanistan will be fraught with danger and that more lives will be lost.

His grim assessment was made Monday after the death of Australian Lance Corporal Jason Marks.

The 27-year-old Special Forces soldier died during an attack by militants in southern Afghanistan, where the majority of Australia's one thousand troops are based. 

Five Australian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002, and Mr. Rudd says it is likely that there will be more casualties.

"This is a sad day for the nation," Mr. Rudd said. "It is a sad day for the Australian Defense Force.  It is a tragic day for the family.  2008 will be difficult and dangerous and bloody, and the Australian nation needs to prepare itself for further losses."

Army chiefs warn that Afghanistan is entering its so-called fighting period, when the melting of winter snow heralds an increase in activity by Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists.

Mr. Rudd says Canberra remains committed to the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban but has no plans to increase its military presence in Afghanistan.  Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor to the international force trying to bring stability to Afghanistan.

The Taliban government was ousted in a U.S.-led invasion because it was providing a haven for al-Qaeda leaders after the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.  Taliban and al-Qaeda militants continue an insurgency across the country.

The death of the Australian commando came after militants attacked a parade in the Afghan capital Kabul - attended by President Hamid Karzai - with rockets and gunfire.  Three people died.

Despite his support for the Afghanistan mission, Mr. Rudd's government is pulling its combat troops out of Iraq later this year. The Iraq mission is unpopular among Australian citizens.