A French patrol marched up a rocky and dusty Afghan mountain pass. Suddenly, Taliban insurgents opened fire from front and back, setting off an hours-long gunfight — the deadliest for allied forces in Afghanistan in more than three years.
French officials faced increasing pressure Thursday to reconstruct and explain the well-planned and unusually bloody ambush east of Afghan capital Kabul days earlier that killed 10 French troops and injured 21 others.
President Nicolas Sarkozy led a solemn funeral ceremony to honor the victims at the Invalides complex in Paris, and vowed that France will not pull out of the U.S.-led fight against terrorism based in Afghanistan.
"We don't have the right to lose there," he said.
Also Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition said it had killed more than 30 insurgents in eastern Afghanistan — fighters an Afghan governor said were responsible for the Monday attack that killed the French troops.
Maelstrom of violence
The ambush and ensuing gunbattle, which French officials say also killed about 30 insurgents, opened a window into the swelling maelstrom of violence in Afghanistan and exposed how allies are under new strains from a resurgent Taliban. Two attacks Thursday killed six NATO soldiers, officials said.
Officials in France, one of Europe's strongest military powers, say the Taliban have vastly improved their fighting ability since the U.S.-led coalition ousted them from power in Afghanistan in 2001.
"They are able to carry out far more seasoned tactical operations than they had been recently, and we're paying the price," French Defense Minister Herve Morin told RTL radio.
Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, the head of the French military, said the Taliban have shown recently "a greater ability to organize and maneuver," and they "don't seem to have any problem getting munitions."
The skirmish in the Uzbin valley, east of the capital, Kabul, came in the early afternoon as the French were leading a third reconnaissance check of an area known as a Taliban hotbed. Several U.S. special forces soldiers and a few dozen Afghan army troops were patrolling alongside about 60 French.
Most of the deaths were caused in the first few minutes, Morin said. The Taliban attacked selectively and cunningly: The first troops hit were the patrol's radio operator, sharpshooter and assistant commander, he said.
The gunmen, which totaled 80 to 100 insurgents, then surprised the patrol's support soldiers, and attacked another French unit nearby, Morin said. A French commander ordered backup from a rapid-reaction team at an allied base in nearby Surobi and American A-10 Warthogs roared in to provide air support and give cover to French helicopters used to evacuate the injured, Georgelin said.
Nine French soldiers were killed in the fight. A tenth died leaving the battle site when his armored vehicle toppled over as an unstable mountain road collapsed under its weight, French officials said.
Morin said the U.S. warplanes, guided by the U.S. special forces, fired automatic guns at the insurgents but could not launch bombs because of the risk of collateral damage to the pinned-down troops.
Survivors were quoted in French newspaper Le Monde as saying it took hours for backup to arrive. The report also said French troops were hit by friendly fire from NATO planes.
Morin insisted that the NATO quick-reaction force set off from Surobi within 20 minutes, and took no more than 50 minutes to reach the site of the fighting. He and a NATO spokeswoman said there were no indications that the French forces had been hit by friendly fire.
"None of the wounds sustained by those killed or wounded were consistent with air-delivered ordinance," said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero in Brussels.
In an unusual display of brashness, the insurgents also attacked the French forces while they were returning to base early Tuesday. There were no casualties, French officials said.
The head of France's lower house of parliament said Thursday that a legislative commission would question Morin sometime in the next few days to get a full accounting of the incident.
Sarkozy has been expanding France's role in Afghanistan, and has repeatedly argued that the allied fight there is vital bulwark against terrorism — despite polls showing most French oppose the enhanced deployment.
The French took over NATO's rotating command of the region east of Kabul from Italian troops earlier this month. In April, Sarkozy said he would boost France's contingent by 700 troops in Afghanistan to about 2,600, after the United States urged NATO allies to shoulder more of the burden.
The attack was the deadliest one 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.