Sarkozy arrives in Afghanistan

August 20, 2008 12:00 am

, KABUL, August 20 – French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Kabul on Wednesday in a show of support for French troops after 10 were killed in the deadliest attack yet on international forces in Afghanistan.

Sarkozy touched down at Kabul airport along with his Defence Minister Herve Morin and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, an AFP correspondent said.

They were due to meet some of the 21 French troops wounded in the fighting Monday and Tuesday near Kabul, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Vowing to pursue France’s mission, Sarkozy said before he left late Tuesday that his visit was to show the troops that "France is at their side".

He announced he would fly to Afghanistan as soon as news broke Tuesday of the fighting 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of the capital Kabul.

"In its struggle against terrorism, France has just been hard hit," Sarkozy said.

It was the deadliest attack on international forces fighting extremists in Afghanistan since the US-led war which ousted the hardline Taliban regime in 2001.

It was also the deadliest on French soldiers since a 1983 assault in Beirut in which 58 paratroopers were killed.

But Sarkozy insisted France would not be deterred from its Afghan mission, for which it has 3,000 soldiers serving in a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of more than 40,000 troops from nearly 40 nations.

He was due to hold talks with Michel Stollsteiner, a French general who is head of ISAF troops in Kabul and its surrounds.

"My determination is intact. France is committed to pursuing the struggle against terrorism, for democracy and for freedom," the president said earlier in a statement from his holiday residence in the French Riviera.

He went on: "This is a just cause, it is an honour for France and for its army to defend it."

US forces provided air support in the battle, after which the Taliban said it had destroyed several military vehicles.

"Serious measures, notably in the air, were taken to support and extricate our men caught in an extremely violent ambush," Sarkozy said.

Morin estimated casualties on the Taliban side at 30 dead and 30 wounded.

The French losses drew expressions of sympathy from other countries which have suffered heavy losses in Afghanistan, where extremist violence has grown every year with more foreign and Al-Qaeda-linked fighters believed involved.

US President George W. Bush offered his condolences, as did the leaders of Britain and Canada, other key contributors to the ISAF deployment.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the attack was "a disgraceful and barbaric act".

The latest deaths raised to 176 the number of international troops killed in Afghanistan this year, most of them in attacks.

Nine US soldiers were slain in July when insurgents stormed a base in the northeastern province of Kunar, in another well-planned rebel strike that also involved scores of attacks.

Twenty-four French troops have now been killed in action or in accidents in Afghanistan since French soldiers were first sent there in 2002.

Sarkozy, who paid a brief visit to Afghanistan in December, has pushed for expanding France’s military role despite polls showing public opinion does not support such a move.

He announced French reinforcements to Afghanistan at a NATO summit in April — drawing fierce criticism at home from left-wing opponents who saw the move as a sign of French alignment with US policy.


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