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France to vote on troops abroad

PARIS, September 22 – French lawmakers are to vote Monday on whether to keep French troops in after 10 soldiers were killed there, raising questions about ‘s presence in the increasingly violent country.

Both houses of parliament, dominated by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, are expected to support maintaining the 2,600-strong contingent, one of the largest serving in NATO’s mission.

But a stormy debate was in store after ‘s Globe and Mail newspaper quoted a "secret" NATO report at the weekend saying Taliban fighters who ambushed the French soldiers on August 18 were better armed than their enemy.

NATO and the French general staff denied that such a report existed.

But on Monday ‘s Defence minister confirmed the existence of a NATO officer’s "account" of the deadly ambush.

Herve Morin told RTL radio the description of the battle in was a "fragmented written account done in the heat of the moment the day after or 48 hours after the operation, using elements at the officer’s disposal."

The mountain ambush east of Kabul was the deadliest ground attack on international troops since they were sent to in 2001 to oust the hardline Taliban regime.

According to the Globe and Mail, the 30 French paratroopers ran out of bullets and did not have proper communication equipment, forcing them to stop fighting after 90 minutes.

The soldiers had only one radio, which was quickly knocked out, leaving them unable to call for air support while Taliban fighters used incendiary bullets that punched holes in armoured vehicles, according to the report.

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But a French military spokesman denied the account, saying there was no shortage of bullets and that radio contact was only momentarily lost after a soldier carrying equipment was killed.

"We were always able to respond to Taliban fire. Supplies were flown in by helicopter during the fighting that lasted nine hours," said armed forces chief of staff spokesman Captain Christophe Prazuck.

"I am in a position to say that there is no such report, either from NATO or from ISAF," the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in , said alliance spokesman James Appathurai in Brussels.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon was to address parliament to make the case for continued engagement and defend the decision earlier this year to send 700 extra troops to .

Fillon was to outline additional security measures for the French troops, drawing lessons from the ambush in which the 10 were killed and 21 were wounded.

"It is inconceivable that France, a member of the United Nations Security Council, the fifth power of the world, would contemplate a retreat," Defence Minister Herve Morin said last week.

A poll published after last month’s ambush showed 55 percent of the French supported a pull-out from .

A few thousand people took part in about a dozen anti-war protests across on Saturday, organised by trade unions and left-wing opposition parties.

Critics point to ‘s involvement in as a worrying sign of French alignment with policy under Sarkozy, who is considered pro-American compared to his predecessor Jacques Chirac.

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Heightening concerns is the unstable situation in neighbouring , where a suicide bomb attack at an Islamabad hotel killed 60 people on Saturday.

The French government faced a no-confidence motion in April over its decision to deepen ‘s involvement in , but that was roundly defeated by the governing party’s majority.

About 70,000 international troops, 40,000 of them under NATO command, are helping Afghans fight the Taliban who were ousted from Kabul in a US-led invasion launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks.


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