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AFGHANISTAN

France mulls Afghan exit after troops ‘murdered’

President Nicolas Sarkozy warned on Friday he may accelerate the French withdrawal from Afghanistan after an Afghan soldier shot dead four unarmed French troops during a sports session inside a base.

Sarkozy suspended French military training and joint combat operations and dispatched Defence Minister Gerard Longuet to probe Friday’s attack in which at least 15 French soldiers were wounded, eight seriously.

“The French army stands alongside its allies but we cannot accept that a single one of our soldiers be wounded or killed by our allies, it’s unacceptable,” Sarkozy said.

“If security conditions are not clearly established, then the question of an early return of the French army will be asked,” he said.

A security source said the shooting happened as “the French were just finishing their sports session” at the Gwam base.

“The soldiers were not protected. They could not defend themselves. He fired at the group. Then they neutralised him,” the source said.

Longuet described the attack as “murder”.

“They were not armed, they were literally murdered by an Afghan soldier. We don’t yet know if it was a Taliban who infiltrated or if it was someone who decided to act for reasons as yet unknown,” Longuet said.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France would await a report from Longuet and military chief of staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud on their return from Afghanistan before taking any decision on an early pull-out.

“Their main task will be to establish the circumstances and responsibilities of this tragedy and then report to the French government what measures the Afghan authorities promise to undertake to sort out Afghan army recruitment and ensure the French contingent’s security,” Juppe said.

“Based on this report, the president and the government will decide whether the security conditions are credible.

“If this is not the case, we will draw the conclusions… including the acceleration of a complete withdrawal of our contingent set for the end of 2013,” Juppe said.

France has about 3,600 soldiers serving in the country, mainly in the provinces of Kabul and Kapisa, the scene of Friday’s shooting.

Their deployment is deeply unpopular in France, and Sarkozy is facing a tough reelection battle in less than three months.

French troops have fanned out around their base in the eastern province and are not allowing any Afghan soldiers to approach, a security source told AFP.    

The French force currently in Afghanistan will be reduced to 3,000 by late 2012, with 200 due to leave in March. NATO is due to hand security over to Afghan forces before withdrawing all its combat troops by the end of 2014.

Training Afghan forces and accompanying them into battle against rebels is the core of the French mission within the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, the force having already scaled down its own operations.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai sent his condolences to the French people over the deaths, saying relations between the two countries had “always been based on honesty, which makes Afghans happy.”

“The president is saddened at the incident and expresses his deep sympathy and condolences to the president and people of France and the victims’ families,” his office said in a statement.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also expressed his condolences, but insisted the attack was isolated.

“This is a sad day for our troops in Afghanistan and the French people,” Rasmussen told reporters during a visit to NATO ally Latvia.

“I would like to express my condolences for the four French soldiers who were killed today and my sympathy to those who were wounded,” he said, warning against seeing a new trend of attacks from renegade Afghan troops.

“Such tragic incidents are terrible and grab headlines but they are isolated,” he said, noting that 130,000 NATO-led international forces are still serving alongside more than 300,000 Afghans.

The latest deaths brought to 82 the number of French soldiers killed in Afghanistan since French forces deployed there at the end of 2001.

Suicide attacks, roadside bombs and insurgent attacks had a heavy toll on French troops in 2011. A total of 26 were killed, the most in a single year during the 10-year war.

The shooting was the latest in a string of incidents of Afghan soldiers turning their weapons on members of the foreign force fighting an insurgency by hardline Taliban Islamists.

Last month, two soldiers of the French Foreign Legion serving in Afghanistan were shot dead by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform during a mission in Kapisa, site of the main French base in Afghanistan.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack.

In April last year eight US soldiers were killed in a shooting at a military airport in Kabul, but a Pentagon report this month said the killings were the actions of a disturbed Afghan military officer who acted alone.

While some attacks have been claimed by the Taliban, others have been put down to arguments or personal animosity between soldiers from the two forces serving together.

AFGHANISTAN

French fighters appear with Islamic State in Afghanistan

French and Algerian fighters, some arriving from Syria, have joined the ranks of the Islamic State group in northern Afghanistan where the militants have established new bases, multiple international and Afghan sources have told AFP.

French fighters appear with Islamic State in Afghanistan
A remote village in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. File photo: AFP

It is the first time that the presence of French Isis fighters has been recorded in Afghanistan, and comes as analysts suggested foreigners may be heading for the war-torn country after being driven from Syria and Iraq.

It is also a troubling sign as France, which has faced the worst of the Isis-inspired violence in Europe since 2015, debates how to handle hundreds of its citizens who went to fight for the group in the Middle East.

“A number” of Algerian and French nationals entered the largely Isis-controlled district of Darzab in northern Jowzjan province in November, said district governor Baaz Mohammad Dawar.

At least two women were among the arrivals, who were travelling with a translator from Tajikistan as well as Chechens and Uzbeks, Dawar added.

European and Afghan security sources in Kabul confirmed Dawar's claim that French citizens were among the fighters — though, one cautioned, “we do not know how many there are”.

Mohammad Raza Ghafoori, the Jowzjan provincial governor's spokesman, said French-speaking Caucasian men and women had been seen training IS fighters in Darzab.

He cited reports saying that around 50 children, some as young as 10, have also been recruited by the fighters.

Darzab residents told AFP that roughly 200 foreigners had set up camp just a few hundred metres from the village of Bibi Mariam.

One local man who gave his name as Hajji said the fighters were of several nationalities, including French, and were tall, aged in their late 20s, and dressed in military clothing.

“They ride their (motor) bikes, go to the border and come back, but they talk to nobody,” he said.

Hashar, a former district village chief, said some were training others to use suicide bombs and lay mines.

“They are… bringing misery to normal people,” he told AFP, as other villagers said many residents had fled the area.

Locals along with district governor Dawar warned the fighters were also exploiting natural resources, such as precious stones and metals.

One of the security sources said that two of the French had been nicknamed “The Engineers” and appeared to be organising some sort of extraction, “but we do not know what they are looking for”.

Several European services believe the fighters are arriving through Tajikistan, the source said, adding that at least one Frenchman arrested there in July said he had wanted to join IS in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has long attracted foreign fighters, from the mujahedeen during the 1980s war against Soviet invaders to Al-Qaeda's later use of the country as a haven.

The Pentagon has said Isis numbers fewer than 1,000 in Afghanistan.

But the growing presence of foreign fighters among them indicates that Isis “seeks to create an external operations node for new waves of global attacks,” warned analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War recently.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an expert on jihadist groups, said he did not think the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan meant that Isis was necessarily “shifting its base”.

The group's “natural home is Iraq and Syria, but I presume many of the foreigners in particular are taking the opportunity either to escape entirely or moving to other battlefields for Isis where they might prove more useful,” he told AFP.

The head of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has vowed the group will be “annihilated”, and Washington notoriously dropped the so-called “Mother Of All Bombs” on an Isis stronghold in Nangarhar in April.

But as the number of fighters grows in Darzab, the villager Hajji told AFP there were no signs of pro-government forces in the district.

“(The) government is God damned,” he said. “There is no government here.”

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