France mulls early Afghanistan pullout as 4 killed

SYLVIE CORBET Associated Press Published:

PARIS (AP) -- France is suspending its training operations in Afghanistan and threatening to withdraw its entire force from the country early, after an Afghan soldier shot and killed four French troops Friday and wounded several others.

France's foreign minister described the attack as an "assassination," and said it happened during a training exercise at a base jointly operated by French and Afghan forces.

It marked the second time in a month that French troops were killed by Afghan soldiers. Friday was among the most deadly days for French forces in the 10 years they have been serving in the international force in Afghanistan.

It was the latest in a series of attacks by members of the Afghan security forces against coalition partners that have raised fears of increased Taliban infiltration of the Afghan police and army.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed the four were French. Their death brings to 82 the number of French troops killed in the Afghan campaign.

"From now on, all the operations of training and combat help by the French army are suspended," Sarkozy said in Paris.

Sarkozy did not specify how many French forces this would affect, or which programs he was referring to.

A big part of the French role in Afghanistan recently has been training Afghan troops and police ahead of an expected pullout of the around 3,600 French troops currently there in 2014.

"If the conditions of security are not clearly restored, then the question of an early withdrawal of the French army would arise," Sarkozy said, without elaborating.

"The French army is in Afghanistan at the service of the Afghans against terrorism and against the Taliban. The French army is not in Afghanistan so that Afghan soldiers can shoot at them," Sarkozy said.

Unpopular at home, Sarkozy is facing a potentially tough re-election campaign for elections in April and May and appeared determined Friday to act swiftly and sternly to the latest troop deaths.

The candidate who tops opinion polls ahead of France's elections, Socialist Francois Hollande, said in a statement Friday that he would aim to pull out French forces by the end of this year if he becomes president.

Friday's attack was all the more painful for the French because it came just weeks after an Afghan army soldier shot and killed two members of the French Foreign Legion serving in the NATO force on Dec. 29.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet and the chief of staff of the French army are heading Friday to Kabul. Once they report back, Sarkozy said, the French government will decide how to proceed.

Longuet said the French soldiers were unarmed when the attacker opened fire at a base in Gwan in the Kapisa province during a very difficult training exercise at high altitude.

"We don't know at the moment whether it's a Taliban member who infiltrated, or someone who decided (to attack) for reasons that we don't know," he said on France-2 television.

He said the Afghan was in custody of the Afghan army's 3rd brigade, held by a general "whom we trust."

It remained unclear how likely or swift a French pullout could be. France has the fourth-largest force in the international coalition.

"Today there is clearly a new truth. It is not the first time that an Afghan soldier ... assassinates French soldiers," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said. He called it a question of "responsibility to adapt our timetable for withdrawal by taking into account these new circumstances."

Longuet was more cautious, saying French officials should maintain calm when making any decisions.

The number of wounded in the attack was unclear. Juppe said 15 troops were wounded but did not indicate their nationality. Longuet said eight French troops were wounded, and the commanding officer was in serious condition.

Sarkozy said he'd discuss France's role in Afghanistan with Afghan President Hamid Karzai when he visits Paris next week.

In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said this was "a very sad day for our troops in Afghanistan and for the French people," but insisted that such incidents are "isolated."

On the French Defense Ministry website outlining the Afghanistan mission, the first objective listed is "supporting the strengthening of the Afghan National Army" so that it can resume responsibility for the security of the country.

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton, Jamey Keaten and Samantha Bordes in Paris contributed to this report.

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