France Bastille Day haunted by soldier deaths in Afghanistan

14th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

France on Thursday held its annual military parade on the Bastille Day national holiday, haunted by the killing a day earlier of five of its soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

In the wake of the killings, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Thursday he would hold an emergency meeting of top security officials at his Elysee palace later in the day.

They would discuss new security conditions for French troops in the transition period before they quit Afghanistan.

Sarkozy said that this year's July 14 holiday, which saw the French military display its might on the Champs Elysees in Paris while warplanes and helicopters roared overhead, would be dedicated to the dead soldiers.

Before arriving at the parade Sarkozy visited a military hospital near the capital to visit soldiers wounded while serving as part of France's 4,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan.

Some wounded soldiers and their families sat alongside government ministers and top officials in a tribune at the end of the Champs Elysees to watch as thousands of troops marched or rode by on horseback.

The five soldiers killed Wednesday along with an Afghan civilian, were aged between 27 and 38. A suicide bomber targeted them as they protected a local tribal council in the Tagab valley of Kapisa province, east of Kabul.

The deaths brought to 69 the number of French soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2001, when they deployed to support the US-led campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime and hunt Al-Qaeda militants.

Wednesday's attack was the worst loss for French forces since August 18, 2008, when 10 soldiers were killed and 21 injured after Taliban guerrillas ambushed a patrol in Uzbin, in the Sarobi district east of Kabul.

It was also a blow to Sarkozy's struggle to defend his country's role in Afghanistan just a day after he returned from a surprise visit to the country of just a few hours.

His likely rivals in next year's presidential election immediately urged him to speed the withdrawal of French forces.

But even before the latest bloodshed, barely a quarter of voters have backed France's role in the conflict in recent polls.

Sarkozy announced during his trip to Afghanistan that a quarter of France's contingent would come home before the end of next year.

"You must know how to end a war," Sarkozy told journalists at a French base in Afghanistan. "There was never a question of keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely."

He has said no French "combat units" would remain there after 2014, but his opponents have gone further.

Would-be Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande has vowed that if he wins next May's election he will have all troops home within a year.

Another possible Socialist candidate, party leader Martine Aubry, reacted to the deaths by renewing her call for a "precise and determined" withdrawal plan.

"It's time to get ourselves out of this dead end," she declared.

The French military is also in action in Libya, where the air force is taking a leading role in the NATO bombing campaign against Moamer Kadhafi's regime and had dropped weapons to rebels fighting his forces.

French troops also helped overthrow former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo earlier this year after he refused to accept electoral defeat.

In all, France has 13,500 personnel deployed in overseas trouble spots.

© 2011 AFP

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