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Sarkozy visits Kabul after French soldiers killed

French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Wednesday that French troops would stick it out in Afghanistan despite an exceptionally deadly attack and frustration at home about the war.
Image: French President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses French soldiers from the 8th regiment of paratroopers at Warehouse camp in Kabul
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, is flanked by  Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, left, and Defense Minister Hervé Morin as he addresses French soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday.Olivier Laban-mattei / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Wednesday that French troops would stick it out in Afghanistan despite an exceptionally deadly attack and frustration at home about the war.

"We have to be here," he said while visiting Kabul, adding that he had no regrets about sending 700 reinforcements to the French contingent. "If it had to be done again, I would do it."

Sarkozy spoke to French troops from units who lost some of the 10 soldiers killed in a fierce Taliban ambush and firefight in mountains about 30 miles east of Kabul on Monday. It was the deadliest attack on international troops in Afghanistan since 2005.

Sarkozy spread his message to listeners in Europe whose countries also have troops coping with mounting violence in Afghanistan.

"The work you are doing here is vital. I say that ... to your comrades in Europe because there are soldiers from the whole of Europe here," he said.

"The best way of remaining faithful to your comrades is to continue the work, to lift your heads, to be professional.

"A part of the world's freedom is at stake here. This is where the fight against terrorism is being waged," he said.

Sarkozy visited a military chapel in Kabul on Wednesday where the bodies of 10 French soldiers killed in battle lay before they were to be flown home.

The French president also visited some of the 21 soldiers wounded in the battle. He told a group of about 200 soldiers that France must learn lessons from the attack and change its procedures.

"We're going to make sure that the means are put in place to ensure that this doesn't happen again," he vowed.

Friendly fire alleged
Meanwhile, survivors of the ambush criticized France's handling of the attack and the leader of the opposition Socialists raised questions about the French troop presence in Afghanistan.

French survivors of the battle quoted in Le Monde on Wednesday said French soldiers were hit by friendly fire from NATO aircraft trying to free them, and that the troops waited four hours for reinforcements. There was no immediate official reaction to the claims.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Pentagon had "no reports of fratricide caused by close air support."

Socialist Party chief Francois Hollande called for an emergency parliamentary meeting to discuss "this presence there in Afghanistan."

He did not call for a pullout of French troops. "We should not make precipitous choices because of this drama. We must redefine the mission and set precise goals," he said on France-Info radio.

The Socialists sought to block Sarkozy's decision earlier this year to boost the French contingent in Afghanistan to about 2,600 troops after the U.S. pressed NATO allies to shoulder more of the combat burden in Afghanistan.

French newspapers Wednesday expressed horror at the attack, and some editorialists criticized Sarkozy for giving in too easily to Washington's pleas for help. Some questioned how the French troops are being utilized.

The center-right Le Figaro asked, "if the aims are just, are the tactics being used to achieve them correct?"

But Le Figaro and other papers generally supported the idea of keeping French troops on the ground. Even the left-leaning Liberation said, "the worst solution obviously would be retreat."

Karzai, Sarkozy meet
Sarkozy met Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace. Karzai attributed the recent rise in violence in his country to the lack of attention that NATO and Afghanistan has paid to militant sanctuaries and training grounds, a clear reference to Pakistan's tribal area.

"Unless we do that (pay more attention) we will continue to suffer," Karzai said.

The French soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission when they were ambushed by a force of about 100 militants in the mountains of Surobi.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin said about 30 militants were killed and 30 wounded. Taliban fighters and militants allied to renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar operate in Surobi.

It was the deadliest attack on international troops in Afghanistan since June 2005, when 16 American soldiers were killed when their helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Militants are showing greater determination to confront U.S. and NATO troops in their attempt to wrest back the control they lost nearly seven years ago.

In the latest violence, some 19 Taliban fighters were killed in two separate clashes in the eastern provinces of Khost and Paktia, while a U.S.-led coalition soldier was killed by militants while on patrol in the west of the country.

Ten militants were killed in Alisher district of Khost province early Wednesday after they attacked a construction company, said provincial police chief Esmatullah Alizai. He said Afghan police and coalition troops responded, killing the militants.

The Khost governor, Arsallah Jamal, said one construction worker was wounded in the attack.

Another nine militants were killed in clashes in Zormat district of Paktia province on Wednesday, said Abdul Qayum Bakizoy, the provincial police chief. The militants had gathered in an open area when Afghan and foreign troops attacked them, Bakizoy said. There were no casualties among Afghan and foreign troops.

A coalition soldier was killed by small arms fire while on patrol in western Afghanistan, the coalition said in a statement Wednesday without identifying the soldier's nationality.

More than 3,400 people — mostly militants — have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Western and Afghan officials.