France 'committed to Afghanistan'

2012-01-21 13:00

Kabul - France remains committed to bringing stability to Afghanistan, its defence minister said on Saturday after Paris threatened to accelerate its troop withdrawal following the deaths of four soldiers.

"The entire point of this visit is to assess the position that we have to take," Gerard Longuet told reporters after flying into the Afghan capital for talks with President Hamid Karzai and US commander General John Allen.

"The mission remains exactly the same, to bring about a stable force" and "to handover" to the Afghans, the minister said. "We must reflect in order to support a mission that is a success."

Asked about the possibility of an early French withdrawal from the 10-year conflict against the Taliban, Longuet said only: "I'll talk about that with the president, he's my only boss."

At Kabul airport, the minister met some of the French soldiers who were seriously wounded in Friday's attack by an Afghan soldier shortly before they were to be evacuated to France.

He said the men were victims of the trust they had in Afghan soldiers they were training at the base where one of them opened fire. It was the second time in less than a month that French soldiers had been targeted by Afghan soldiers.

"They didn't have a chance. This was murder," said Longuet.

The minister is due to brief President Nicolas Sarkozy on steps being taken by the Afghans to guarantee security conditions for the French trainers.

Sarkozy has said that without such conditions being clearly established, he will raise the prospect of an early return of the French army.

Nineteen unarmed French soldiers were killed or wounded when an Afghan soldier opened fire as they finished working out on a training base in Kapisa in eastern Afghanistan.

Sarkozy immediately suspended French military training and joint combat operations with Afghan troops.

The French role in the Nato-led mission is unpopular at home and - less than 100 days before presidential elections - Sarkozy appears to be preparing the ground for a rapid withdrawal.

The French force currently in Afghanistan will be reduced to 3 000 by late 2012, with 200 due to leave in March. Nato is due to hand security over to Afghan forces before withdrawing all its combat troops by the end of 2014.