April 11, 2008 / 9:49 AM / in 9 years

Kouchner sees 3,000 French troops in Afghanistan

<p>A French soldier from the NATO forces keeps watch as Afghan women and their children arrive to attend a free medical assistance camp by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in the outskirts of Kabul, April 3, 2008.Ahmad Masood</p>

DUSHANBE (Reuters) - French troops operating in Afghanistan will number about 3,000, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Friday.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last week that Paris would send an extra 700 troops to Afghanistan, which would bring France's contribution to NATO's fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda there to roughly 2,300 men.

On a visit to the Central Asian state of Tajikistan, Kouchner gave the higher figure and officials in Paris said it was likely he had included in his estimate the 700 troops based in nearby states and involved in related operations.

"I cannot give you an exact figure, because the military must make their own decision, but I can tell you that about 3,000 French troops will be placed in Afghanistan," Kouchner said, speaking through an interpreter.

"This is the will of our president and his decision was not spontaneous. He sent a letter to all coalition members to inform them about it," Kouchner told reporters.

He did not say when the extra troops would deploy or what role they would play, but his mention of Sarkozy's letter suggested he was referring to the previously announced increase.

Officials in Paris said on condition of anonymity that they had not seen Kouchner's comments but they presumed that if he was accurately translated he must have accidentally included troops stationed nearby rather than in Afghanistan.

Kouchner will visit Afghanistan this weekend, French diplomats said, his first trip there since France announced it was sending an extra 700 troops to the east of the country.

French officials have said those reinforcements were conditional on a more unified overall strategy on issues including development, and on progressively handing over responsibility for security and other issues to Afghans.

France is hosting a conference on June 12 aimed at raising funds for Afghanistan and reviewing that strategy, and an official who briefed reporters said preparing for the conference would be the focus of Kouchner's trip.

TOUGH SOUTH

Kouchner is due to meet President Hamid Karzai and officials including his counterpart, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta on Saturday. He will also hold meetings with non-governmental organizations and visit a hospital in Kabul.

He will then go to Kandahar, in the south of the country, with Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier, despite Canada's disappointed at France's decision to send reinforcements to the east rather than help it fight the Taliban in the south.

France has fighter jets stationed in Kandahar providing aerial support for its allies' ground forces.

"He will meet various people there to receive an evaluation of the situation, not just in Kabul but also in a province, and a province where the situation is not easy," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Last week U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed France's extra contribution to the 47,000-strong NATO force and said it would allow some U.S. troops to move from the east to the south, scene of the worst clashes with the Taliban and where Canada demanded reinforcements or else it would leave the mission.

Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Paris; Writing by Christian Lowe and Olzhas Auyezov

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