Taliban insurgents killed 10 French soldiers and wounded 21 in a major battle east of the Afghan capital, the French president's office said on Tuesday, the biggest single combat loss for international forces in Afghanistan in more than three years.
The Taliban have gradually closed in on Kabul in the past year, making travel south, west or east of the capital extremely hazardous for troops, aid workers and civilians, and spreading fear among the populace.
Meanwhile, a team of suicide bombers tried unsuccessfully to storm a U.S. military base near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in a daring attack on a major American installation. Soldiers on the ground, fighter aircraft and helicopters chased the retreating militants.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is to travel to Afghanistan on Tuesday in response to the deaths of the French soldiers, his office said.
"My determination is intact. France is determined to continue the struggle against terrorism for democracy and freedom. The cause is just," Sarkozy said in a statement.
The French soldiers were killed in a major battle that erupted when Taliban insurgents ambushed their reconnaissance patrol from three sides in the Sarobi district of Kabul province about 40 miles east of Kabul late on Monday.
Significant air support was used to extract the units from an extremely violent ambush, the French presidency said.
A "large number" of insurgents were killed in the fighting, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
France has 2,600 troops in Afghanistan, after Sarkozy sent an extra 700 soldiers this year in response to a U.S. call for its NATO allies to send more forces to check a surge in violence.
Only 12 French troops had previously died in Afghanistan since U.S.-led and Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 for refusing to give up al-Qaida leaders behind the September 11 attacks.
The 10 dead and 21 wounded soldiers were from the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment and the Regiment de marche du Tchad, a mechanized marine unit.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said 27 insurgents have been killed or wounded in the fighting and at least two Afghan soldiers have been wounded.
The Taliban Web site said 20 U.S. soldiers had been killed in the fighting, which they said erupted after militants ambushed a convoy of Afghan and foreign forces late on Monday. The insurgents commonly refer to all foreign troops as American.
In the attack on the U.S. base just a few miles from the border with Pakistan, militants failed to gain entry to Camp Salerno in Khost city after launching waves of strikes just before midnight on Monday, said Arsallah Jamal, the governor of Khost.
The attacks came a day after a suicide bomb outside the same base killed 10 civilians and wounded 13 others.
NATO said its forces identified the attackers about 1,000 yards outside of the base perimeter and launched helicopter gunships.
Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, said Afghan soldiers, aided by U.S. troops, chased and surrounded a group of insurgents, and that six militants blew themselves up when cornered. Seven other militants died in those explosions and a rolling gun battle, he said.
"(The Afghan National Army) is saying that anytime we get close to them, they detonate themselves," Jamal said.
NATO offered a slightly different account on the attack on the U.S. base, saying three suicide bombers detonated their vests and three more were shot dead. NATO said seven attackers in total were killed.
At least 13 insurgents and two Afghan civilians died in the attack, officials said. Five Afghan soldiers were wounded in the fighting, Azimi said.
The Taliban appeared to confirm the account. Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said 15 militants had been dispatched for the attack on Salerno. Seven blew themselves up and eight returned to a Taliban safehouse, he said.
Jamal said the bodies of at least two dead militants were outside the checkpoint leading to the base's airport, both of whom had on vests packed with explosives, Jamal said. It wasn't clear if those militants were among the dead in Azimi's count.
Coordinated attacks rare
Militants have long targeted U.S. bases with suicide bombers, but coordinated attacks on such a major base are rare.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks in provinces bordering the Afghan capital over the past year, closing in from the volatile south and east, where the bulk of the fighting has occurred since the militants relaunched their insurgency in 2005.
Kabul has had fewer suicide bombings so far this year compared to 2007, but the attacks have been far more daring and have hit higher-profile targets, increasing the sense of insecurity in the capital.