Sarkozy reaffirms Afghan commitment
Battle, bombing follow ambush
KABUL, Afghanistan - President Nicolas Sarkozy of France vowed yesterday 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 June 2005, when 16 American soldiers were killed when their helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. It was also the worst attack on foreign troops in ground combat since the start of the war in 2001.
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," he said. "I say that . . . to your comrades in Europe because there are soldiers from the whole of Europe here. A part of the world's freedom is at stake here. This is where the fight against terrorism is being waged."
Sarkozy yesterday visited a military chapel in Kabul 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.
Meanwhile, survivors of the ambush criticized France's handling of the attack, and the leader of the opposition Socialist Party raised questions about the French troop presence in Afghanistan.
French survivors of the battle quoted in Le Monde yesterday 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.
US 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," Hollande said. "We must redefine the mission and set precise goals."
The Socialist Party sought to block Sarkozy's decision earlier this year to boost the French contingent in Afghanistan to about 2,600 troops after the US pressed NATO allies to shoulder more of the burden in Afghanistan.
Sarkozy met with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan yesterday 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 training grounds, a clear reference to Pakistan's tribal area.
The French soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission when they were ambushed by a force of about 100 militants in the mountains of Surobi, where fighters allied with renegade warlord to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar operate. France's defense minister, Herve Morin, said about 30 militants were killed and 30 wounded.
Militants are showing greater determination to confront US and NATO troops in their attempt to wrest back the control they lost nearly seven years ago.