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Sarkozy tells French troops in Afghanistan to keep fighting


by Philippe Alfroy*

President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday told French soldiers mourning 10 comrades killed by the Taliban that their work in Afghanistan was essential for the "freedom of the world" and must continue.
Sarkozy flew into Kabul earlier in the day with his Defence Minister Herve Morin and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in a show of support after the 10 were killed and 21 others wounded in a fierce battle on Monday and Tuesday.
It was the deadliest toll in ground fighting for international forces sent to Afghanistan after the Taliban regime was routed in late 2001, and the heaviest for French troops in 25 years.
"I came to tell you that the work that you are doing here is essential," Sarkozy told the troops at their base at Camp Warehouse on the outskirts of Kabul.
"The best way to be loyal to your comrades is to continue your work, is to raise your head, to be professional."
Sarkozy earlier visited a morgue where the 10 bodies were held before being repatriated, and spoke to some of the survivors of the battle, including some of the wounded being treated in a camp hospital.
He said that even after the shock of the deadly ambush about 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Kabul, he was convinced French troops needed to be in Afghanistan alongside those of other nations in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"I have no doubt that we must be here. I am also in shock… but I tell you in good conscience that if we had to do it again, I would do it again," he said.
"Not the patrol and the sequence of events, but the choice which led me to confirm the decision of my predecessors to send the French army here.
"Why are we here? It is because here we play a part in the freedom of the the world. Here we are fighting against terrorism."
Sarkozy also met Michel Stollsteiner, a French general who heads ISAF troops in Kabul and surrounding areas, and then Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
There are nearly 70,000 international soldiers in Afghanistan, most of them in the 40-nation ISAF, to help the government tackle a growing insurgency led by the Taliban who are linked with Al-Qaeda.
France's contribution of 3,000 troops to ISAF is one of the largest, after those of the United States, Britain and Germany.
The French losses drew expressions of sympathy from other countries which have suffered heavy losses in Afghanistan, where extremist violence has grown every year with more foreign and Al-Qaeda-linked fighters believed involved.
US President George W. Bush offered his condolences, as did leaders of Britain and Canada. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the attack was "a disgraceful and barbaric act."
The latest deaths raised to 176 the number of international soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year, most of them in attacks.
Nine US soldiers were slain in July when insurgents stormed a base in the northeastern province of Kunar, in another well-planned rebel strike that also involved scores of attacks.
A total of 23 French troops have now been killed in action or in accidents in Afghanistan since French soldiers were deployed in 2002.
Sarkozy, who paid a brief visit to Afghanistan in December, has pushed for an expansion in France's military role in the country despite polls showing public opinion does not support such a move.
He announced French reinforcements to Afghanistan at a NATO summit in April — drawing fierce criticism at home from left-wing opponents who saw the move as a sign of French alignment with US policy.