France eyes sending troops to Afghan combat zone

Tue Feb 26, 2008 10:58am EST
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PARIS (Reuters) - France may send hundreds of ground troops to east Afghanistan where NATO-led forces are fighting al Qaeda-backed insurgents, Le Monde newspaper reported on Tuesday.

It said the move would be part of a new Afghan policy being worked out by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his advisers.

France has about 1,900 soldiers under NATO's Afghan command, most of them based in relatively calm Kabul, and Le Monde said the fresh troops would be deployed outside the capital.

"Their destination would be zones of potentially fierce fighting, preferably the eastern region of Afghanistan close to the tribal areas of Pakistan," it said.

Early last year, France withdrew 200 special forces soldiers who had been operating under U.S. command in Afghanistan, but Le Monde said Paris was now expected to sanction the return of the special forces. About 50 remained to train Afghan commandos.

A presidential spokesman declined to confirm or deny the newspaper report. "The president has not made a decision. We are in discussion with our partners, inside NATO but not exclusively," he said.

An alliance source said the plan was one of a number of options that France was discussing with allies ahead of an April summit in Bucharest at which alliance leaders will look to give new impetus to the security mission.

Under the plan, the deployment of French soldiers to the east would free up U.S. forces there to go and help Canadian troops fighting insurgents in the south.

"Our understanding is that there is no decision on this. There is a long way to go until Bucharest," said the source.   Continued...

<p>British soldiers take a break after securing an area during medical assistance in Kabul February 26, 2008. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood</p>