France mulls early Afghanistan pullout as 4 killed

Associated Press
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech to present his New Year wishes to the foreign diplomatic corps at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. 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. (AP Photo/Charles Platiau, pool)
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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — France suspended its training operations in Afghanistan and threatened to withdraw its entire force from the country early after an Afghan soldier shot and killed four French troops Friday and wounded 15 others.

The shooting — the second such attack in a month — came during a particularly deadly 24 hours for the international military coalition. Six U.S. Marines also died in a helicopter crash late Thursday.

It was the latest in a series of attacks by members of the Afghan security forces or infiltrators in disguise against coalition partners that have raised fears of increased Taliban infiltration of the Afghan police and army as foreign combat forces prepare to withdraw from the country by 2014. The impact of the French suspending training operations is unclear, but it would result in a major setback for the U.S.-led coalition if other troop-contributing nations stopped training Afghan national security forces or decided to pull out earlier than planned.

French officials said the Afghan soldier opened fire with an unspecified automatic weapon shortly after unarmed French soldiers had finished physical training exercises. French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the soldier appeared to have had authorization to enter Forward Operating Base in Gwan in Tagab district of Kapisa province. Three quarters of the 600 soldiers on the base are Afghan and the rest are French, Burkhard said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the French deaths in Paris and the suspension of training programs. He did not specify how many French forces or which programs would be affected.

"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.

He added that if security for troops is not restored, "then the question of an early withdrawal of the French army would arise."

Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the French soldiers were unarmed when the attacker opened fire during a very difficult training exercise at high altitude. French military officials said 15 other French soldiers were injured

"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," Longuet 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."

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, praised the Afghan attacker but did not claim he was an infiltrator or provide other details.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed deep regret over the attack.

Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the ministry had sent a delegation to the area to investigate the shooting, he said. He said the attacker was arrested and was being questioned.

Friday was among the most deadly days for French forces in the 10 years they have been serving in the international force in Afghanistan. The latest deaths bring 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.

The defense minister 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.

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.

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 forces fired back and killed the assailant.

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.

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

Afghan security forces or insurgents dressed in their uniforms have attacked and killed international troops or civilian trainers more than a dozen times in the past two years, according to an Associated Press count.

Earlier this month, a U.S. service member was killed when a man in an Afghan army uniform opened fire at a base in the south of the country.

In one of the worst incidents, a veteran Afghan military pilot opened fire at Kabul airport on April 27, 2011, killing eight U.S. troops and an American civilian contractor.

In Riga, Latvia, 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."

The helicopter crash, which occurred in the southern Helmand province, was the deadliest in Afghanistan since August, when 30 American troops died after a Chinook helicopter was apparently shot down in Wardak province in the center of the country.

The cause of Thursday's crash is still being investigated, but a coalition statement said there was no enemy activity in the area when it happened.

A senior U.S. defense official said all six reported killed were U.S. Marines and there was no indication that the helicopter had been hit by enemy fire. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity because the U.S. command in Afghanistan had not yet publicly released details, including the nationalities of the dead.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef claimed insurgents shot down the helicopter, a Chinook, in Musa Qala district of Helmand province, killing all on board. The Taliban frequently exaggerate the number of people they claim to have killed.

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Corbet reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Angela Charlton, Jamey Keaten and Samantha Bordes in Paris, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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