French troops faced large rebel force in Kabul

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The French soldiers who were ambushed in Afghanistan in August were attacked by about 170 rebels who were better organised than usual, said officers.

1 September 2008

SAROBI -- French soldiers ambushed in Afghanistan in August were confronted by about 170 heavily-armed rebels who were better organised than usual, officers involved in the firefight told AFP.

Ten Frenchmen, most of them from an elite paratroop unit, were killed and 21 others wounded in the 18 August clash on a rocky mountaintop overlooking the Uzbeen valley, 65 kilometres east of Kabul.

The ambush, the deadliest ground battle for foreign forces since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and the worst French military loss in 25 years, prompted a public outcry in France, with some calling for an immediate troop withdrawal.

The attack "took us by surprise", said Sebastien, a 37-year-old troop commander whose full name cannot be used for security reasons.

"Until then, rebels mostly attacked with groups of 30 to 50 men, with only 20 of them actually taking part in the fighting," he said.

"But this time, they had regrouped and coordinated forces," he added, putting the total enemy forces at 170, broken up into different groups.

France has 3,000 troops serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The US special forces and an Afghan army unit were also involved in August's battle.

The 18 August battle was the first firefight the paratroopers had been involved in since taking over responsibility for the mountainous area from an Italian contingent earlier in the month.

French officers, speaking at their isolated base on a barren desert hill on the outskirts of Sarobi, suggested they were targeted because of their more aggressive patrolling in the area.

They said they killed between 40 and 70 enemy fighters, but acknowledged they only recovered one body from the battlefield as they withdrew under the cover of darkness.

According to the French, US special forces managed to ambush 30 retreating rebels the next day further to the east.

Guillaume, a group leader from the 8th marine parachute regiment, said his quick response team took an hour and a half to cover the 15 kilometres separating the base from the ambush site because of the rugged landscape.

"The terrain was very bad," with rebels holding the heights over a wide front and firing down on the French, said the 25-year-old.

"We couldn't see the enemy and we didn't know how many of them there were.

We started climbing, but after 20 minutes we started coming under fire from the rear. We were surrounded," he said.

Christian, a 26-year-old private, said he and his comrades held their position throughout the night.

They only managed to pull out in the morning when dozens of coalition drones, helicopters and fighter-bombers pursued the rebels.

All the French soldiers involved in the ambush have since been sent home, along with "one or two others" who helped recover the bodies and who found the experience harrowing.

Patrols are continuing on a regular basis, "but we're a lot more careful", said Nathan, a 20-year-old serving his first tour in Afghanistan.

"We saw the sort of firepower they can unleash at one go," he said.

[AFP / Expatica]

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