France says 1,000 troops to leave Afghanistan

President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Tuesday that France would withdraw a quarter of its 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, becoming the latest NATO power to downsize its combat mission in the war-torn country.

The French leader announced the withdrawal during a surprise visit to meet troops stationed in Sarobi district, northeast of Kabul, and to be briefed on progress against the Taliban by a French general.

“It’s necessary to end the war,” Sarkozy told journalists at the base. “There was never a question of keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.”

France has around 4,000 troops deployed in the country, mostly in Sarobi, Kabul, and in northeastern Kapisa province.

“We will withdraw a quarter of our troops, that’s to say 1,000 men, by the end of 2012,” he said.

Those remaining in Afghanistan will be concentrated in Kapisa, where they have been deployed since 2008.

“The first group will leave at the end of this year,” Sarkozy said, without specifying the magnitude of this “first phase”.

That withdrawal will be “in consultation with our allies and with the Afghan authorities,” he said, as “the situation allows”.

The partial drawdown follows similar announcements by Britain and the United States, as Western leaders look to a final deadline of the end of 2014 to extract all combat troops from an increasingly deadly and costly conflict.

In Kabul, Sarkozy held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was in a sombre mood after receiving news shortly before the discussions that his younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai had been assassinated in Kandahar.

Sarkozy did not rule out that French military advisors and trainers would remain after combat troops leave, “if the Afghan authorities want”, adding that civilian cooperation would also continue.

“We must not abandon Afghanistan. We will continue to help Afghanistan. We’ll go from military to economic cooperation,” Sarkozy said after his meeting with Karzai before flying out of the country.

The French leader earlier met the top US commander on the ground, General David Petraeus, who will oversee the initial drawdown of 33,000 US troops set to leave by the end of next summer — effectively ending a military “surge” ordered into Afghanistan, principally the south, in late 2009.

Britain has said 500 of its soldiers will leave by the end of next year. Belgium has also announced some of its troops will depart and Canada last week ended its near 3,000-strong combat mission in the southern province Kandahar.

It was Sarkozy’s third visit to the battle-scarred country since becoming president and came two days ahead of the Bastille Day French national holiday.

His earlier trips were in December 2007 and August 2008.

His trip came a day after a 22-year-old French soldier was killed in a shooting blamed on “accidental fire” by a fellow French soldier.

France has lost 64 soldiers in the course of the war, according to figures compiled by the independent

Last month, Sarkozy said “several hundred” French troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of the year.

His office had said earlier that France would carry out a progressive pullback of its 4,000 troops “in a proportional manner and in a timeframe similar to the pullback of the American reinforcements”.

Sarkozy’s visit comes days after that by new US defence chief Leon Panetta and a week after a visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron, with Western leaders focused on efforts to draw down troops and end the long war.

Commanders are now preparing to hand over seven NATO-held areas to Afghan control starting in mid-July, although there is widespread doubt over the ability of Afghan forces to take full responsibility for their own security.

Sarkozy said he shared Obama’s belief that security had improved since the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May and that the handover to Afghan troops and police was proceeding smoothly.

Should the situation improve, the pullout of all Western combat troops in 2014 might be “brought forward”, he said.

US-led coalition forces have been fighting the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan since they invaded in late 2001 in the wake of the September 11 attacks orchestrated by bin Laden.

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French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron

French forces "tortured and murdered" Algerian freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel during his country's war for independence, President Emmanuel Macron admitted on Tuesday, officially reappraising a death that was covered up as a suicide.

French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron
Malika, the widow of Ali Boumendjel, pictured in 2001. Photo: Stefan Fferberg/AFP

Macron made the admission “in the name of France” during a meeting with Boumendjel’s grandchildren.

The move comes after Macron in January refused to issue an official apology for abuses committed during the occupation of Algeria – instead, he agreed to form a “truth commission” as recommended by a report commissioned by the government to shed light on France’s colonial past.

Atrocities committed by both sides during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence continue to strain relations between the countries.

Boumendjel, a nationalist and lawyer, was arrested during the battle of Algiers by the French army, “placed incommunicado, tortured, and then killed on 23 March 1957,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

“Ali Boumendjel did not commit suicide. He was tortured and then killed,” Macron told Boumendjel’s grandchildren, according to the statement.

It is not the first time the real cause of death was acknowledged.

In 2000, the former head of French intelligence in Algiers Paul Aussaresses confessed to ordering Boumendjel’s death and disguising the murder as a suicide, according to the statement.

It added that Macron on Tuesday had also reiterated his desire to give families the opportunity to find out the truth about this chapter of history.

Last month, Boumendjel’s niece Fadela Boumendjel-Chitour denounced what she called the “devastating” lie the French state had told about her uncle.

French historian Benjamin Stora, who wrote the government-commissioned report, has said there is a “never-ending memory war” between the two countries.

The report has been described by the Algerian government as “not objective” and falling “below expectations.”

During his 2017 election campaign, Macron – the first president born after the colonial period – declared that the occupation of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

He has since said there was “no question of showing repentance” or of “presenting an apology” for abuses committed in the North African country.