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Hundreds more French troops to Afghanistan?

France may contribute "several hundred" more troops to reinforce the fight against the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan, the prime minister told parliament Tuesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

France may contribute "several hundred" more troops to reinforce the fight against the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan, the prime minister told parliament Tuesday.

Francois Fillon, speaking at the National Assembly amid domestic opposition to a bigger French deployment, said NATO and its allies must stop Afghanistan from again becoming a hub of international terrorism.

It was the first time a senior French official publicly gave a figure for France's plans to boost its forces in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan plays a large part "in our security, and thus our freedom," Fillon said. "The deployment could be of the order of several hundred extra soldiers."

Fillon did not say what the new forces would be. But he said that French forces in Afghanistan could be called upon to get more involved in command operations, training the Afghan army, and security and reconstruction efforts in the provinces. He did not specify where.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said France would increase its participation beyond its 2,200 troops in the region, without specifying how many or where they would be deployed.

Fillon said Sarkozy hasn't yet made a final decision on the deployment.

The president laid out French conditions for a bigger role in a letter last month to NATO counterparts, which sought their commitment to a long-term approach, a common political strategy and stepped-up training for the Afghan security forces, Fillon said.

France wants to peg its greater military commitment to a broader approach to rebuild Afghanistan. In June, Paris will host a donors conference for Afghanistan and meetings to assess political progress there.

News reports in France and Britain, where Sarkozy went for a state visit last week, have said his plan would add some 1,000 reinforcements for NATO in Afghanistan.

Not much support at home
More than two-thirds of people questioned in a poll for Sud-Ouest newspaper published Tuesday said they disapprove of a bigger deployment, while only 15 percent approved. The rest had no opinion. The phone poll of 970 registered voters was conducted Friday and Saturday by the BVA agency. No margin of error was provided.

The opposition Socialist Party opposes the reinforced deployment, with some lawmakers warning that France risks being ensnared in a "new Vietnam."

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the party's leader in the assembly, said the plan to boost troop levels has "little to do with Afghanistan" and more with Sarkozy's "Atlantic obsession" _ closer ties with the United States.

"Who can believe that adding war on top of war will stop it," he told parliament. "We refuse this sinking into a conflict without a goal and without an end."

Fillon's comments come as NATO is preparing for a summit in Romania this week during which President Bush will step up calls for European allies to increase their contributions to the 47,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan.

The alliance has been undergoing a two-year dispute between member nations such as Britain, Canada and the United States that have combat troops in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan and those who keep their forces in the more stable north and west.

Countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain have refused to move to the Afghan front lines because of the unpopularity of the war at home.