Sarkozy holds emergency security meet after Afghan killings
President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday held an emergency security meeting after five French soldiers were killed in an Afghan suicide attack, as France celebrated Bastille Day.
Sarkozy said the meeting, which gathered his prime minister, defence and foreign affairs ministers and military top brass, was to discuss how to keep French combat troops safe before they quit Afghanistan by 2014.
"The most complex period to handle is the transition and withdrawal period," he told reporters on the Champs Elysees as he inspected the giant annual military parade there attended by tens of thousands of onlookers.
"I have announced a withdrawal calendar for our troops in Afghanistan. This withdrawal will begin this years and will carry on until 2013. We had a job to do and we have done it," the president said.
He reiterated that, in agreement with NATO allies, responsibility for security in the war-torn country would be progressively handed over to Afghans themselves.
Sarkozy said this year's July 14 national holiday, which saw the French military display its might on the Champs Elysees as warplanes and helicopters roared overhead, was dedicated to the five soldiers killed Wednesday.
Before arriving at the parade Sarkozy visited a military hospital near Paris 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 bottom 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 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.
Even before the latest bloodshed, opinion polls showed that barely a quarter of voters backed France's role in the conflict.
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," he said at a French base there. "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.
His likely rivals in next year's presidential election are now urging him to speed up the withdrawal of French forces.
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.
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 has 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