Last Updated: Sun Jun 10, 2012 12:15 pm (KSA) 09:15 am (GMT)

Minister flies to Afghanistan after French deaths

French President Francois Hollande (R) asked Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to head to Afghanistan on Sunday. (Reuters)
French President Francois Hollande (R) asked Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to head to Afghanistan on Sunday. (Reuters)

France’s defense minister headed for Afghanistan on Sunday, hours after an attack that killed four French soldiers and an announcement that the nation would begin withdrawing troops in July.

The attack by a burqa-clad Taliban suicide bomber was the first fatal strike against the French since Francois Hollande took office as president last month, and the head of state said the country would pay “national homage” to the dead.

Speaking after Saturday’s attack in eastern Afghanistan, Hollande, who has promised to bring combat troops home by the end of the year, announced the withdrawal would begin next month.

He also asked Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to head to Afghanistan on Sunday.

Five other troops were wounded in the attack in Nijrab district in Kapisa province, where most of France’s 3,500 soldiers in Afghanistan are stationed, officials said. Three were in a critical condition.

Hollande reiterated his vow to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2012 -- a year earlier than Paris initially planned, and two years before NATO allies -- saying the suicide attack had not changed his plans.

“What happened does not change anything, it neither accelerates nor delays” withdrawal, he said. While some have called for the pullout to be sped up, “it is not possible to go faster”, he added.

NATO allies have downplayed the effect of the early French departure, saying Afghan troops were ready to take over, and U.S. General John Allen, the NATO force commander, has said there will be no reduction in security in Kapisa.

But there are fears that Afghan forces will not be able to fill the security vacuum.

Routes to Kabul from Taliban flashpoints on the Pakistani border run through Kapisa province, and it has proved a tough operation for the French, troubled by turf wars between Islamist insurgents and drug dealers.

On a visit to Afghanistan last month, Hollande said 2,000 combat troops would leave in a coordinated withdrawal this year, but vowed not to abandon the country.

Taliban militants claimed responsibility for Saturday’s suicide attack in a text message sent to reporters.

Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP the attacker was on foot and wearing a burqa.

Saturday’s deaths were the first French fatalities in Afghanistan since January 20, when an Afghan soldier fired on unarmed French trainers, killing five and wounding 15. The death toll for French troops now stands at 87.

There are about 130,000 NATO troops fighting alongside Afghan government forces against the Taliban insurgency. A U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.

Analysts have expressed concern about NATO’s withdrawal, pointing out that Afghan forces have a mixed record at best and questioning whether a security vacuum will heighten violence if not hasten a return to civil war.

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