Sarkozy rushes army chief to Afghanistan after more deaths

14th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday sent his army chief to Afghanistan to draw up new security measures for French troops there after six more were killed this week in the war-torn country.

The move came after Sarkozy summoned government ministers and military top brass to an emergency meeting on the Bastille Day to try to find ways to keep France's 4,000 troops safe before they quit Afghanistan by 2014.

"We are now faced more with terrorist-type actions, not only military action," he said before the meeting. "Faced with this new context and to face this new context, we need new security measures."

Speaking to reporters on the Champs Elysees as he inspected the Bastille Day military parade attended by tens of thousands of people, he reiterated that the French troop withdrawal would begin this year and would be complete by 2014.

"We had a job to do and we have done it," the French president said.

He repeated that, as agreed with France's NATO allies, responsibility for security in Afghanistan would be progressively handed over to the Afghans themselves.

Shortly after Sarkozy spoke at the parade on France's national holiday, his office announced that a French navy commando was killed by insurgents Thursday during an operation alongside Afghan police in Kapisa province, east of Kabul.

That brought to 70 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.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said after Thursday's emergency meeting that the head of the French army, General Elrick Irastorza, was about to leave for Afghanistan to assess the situation after the latest deaths.

He will report back to the president within a week and the new security measures for the withdrawal period will be put in place by September, Longuet told reporters.

The minister insisted however that there was no question of French soldiers retreating to their bases, and said they would continue their role in building up Afghan security forces.

"It is rare that retreat is the response," he said.

Sarkozy said Thursday that this year's July 14 holiday, which saw the French military display its might on the Champs Elysees as warplanes and helicopters roared overhead, was dedicated to soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Before arriving at the parade Sarkozy visited wounded soldiers at a military hospital near Paris.

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.

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 the Sarobi district east of Kabul.

It came just a day after Sarkozy returned from a surprise visit to the country and was a blow to his struggle to defend France's role in Afghanistan.

Even before the latest bloodshed, opinion polls showed that barely a quarter of voters backed France's role in the conflict.

While Sarkozy insists that no French "combat units" will remain there after 2014, his likely rivals in next year's presidential election are now urging him to speed up the withdrawal of French forces.

More than 1,600 US soldiers have been killed in the conflict in Afghanistan, by far the highest toll among the multi-national force operating there.

US President Barack Obama last month said 10,000 American troops would leave Afghanistan this year and all 33,000 personnel sent as part of a surge ordered in late 2009 would be home by mid-2012, leaving a US force of some 65,000.

There are currently up to 150,000 foreign forces in Afghanistan, including about 99,000 from the United States.

© 2011 AFP

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