WaPo : 10 French Soldiers Killed by Taliban

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

10 French Soldiers Killed by Taliban

Fighters in Afghanistan Also Target NATO Base

By Candace Rondeaux | Washington Post Foreign Service | August 20, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 19 -- In unusually large and well-coordinated attacks in eastern Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents killed 10 French paratroopers in a mountain road ambush and at least six suicide bombers attempted to storm a NATO alliance base, NATO and Afghan officials said Tuesday.

The ambush, the deadliest single attack on the French military since 1983, led French President Nicolas Sarkozy to fly to Afghanistan to offer condolences and emphasize that France would stay in the war despite public misgivings at home. France recently sent 700 more soldiers to the country.

In the Afghan war, high death counts among international troops have usually been the result of aircraft being shot down or cleverly placed bombs. Monday's attack on the French, however, was carried out by massed Taliban fighters. Likewise, suicide attacks are normally the work of lone bombers, but at the NATO base, six came together.

As violence in Iraq has settled down in the past year, it has been on the upswing in Afghanistan, with the Taliban showing increasing boldness and sophistication. In the last three months, more foreign troops have been killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq, making this year one of the most lethal since U.S.-led military operations began in Afghanistan in 2001.

The fighting with the French began late Monday afternoon when about 100 insurgents ambushed a French-led reconnaissance patrol near the town of Sarobi, about 40 miles east of Kabul, according to French and NATO officials. Shortly after the ambush, air support and a quick-reaction force of NATO and Afghan soldiers were sent to reinforce the French patrol, which also suffered 21 wounded.

Gen. Mohammed Zaher Azimi, chief spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said at least 13 insurgents were killed and 14 were injured in the exchanges. Azimi said that heavy fighting continued well into Tuesday morning but that NATO and Afghan soldiers were close to clearing the area of insurgents by late afternoon.

The death toll was the highest the French armed forces had suffered anywhere in a single incident since 1983, when 58 troops died in a suicide attack in Beirut carried out in tandem with one that killed 241 U.S. service members.

The NATO base that the suicide bombers targeted was in Khost province. On Monday, a car bomb was detonated outside the base, killing 10 Afghans and wounding 13. A second car bomb was seized before it went off, NATO said. On Tuesday, insurgents followed up with a second attack.

Arsala Jamal, governor of Khost province, said he believed that as many as 10 suicide bombers may have taken part in Tuesday's assault. By his account, the trouble began when 10 to 15 Taliban fighters were seen approaching the base, known as Camp Salerno. NATO troops repelled them with heavy gunfire from the ground and helicopters, Jamal said.

Three of the bombers were killed when they detonated vests laden with explosives, the alliance said, and three others were fatally shot before they could set off their bombs. No NATO casualties were reported.

France has about 1,670 troops in Afghanistan, NATO officials said. Sarkozy agreed to augment his forces there in March after the United States called on its allies in NATO to step up their involvement in the military mission. The war is unpopular in many European NATO countries, where polls show people seeing no end to a conflict that is taking an ever-higher cost.

On Tuesday, Sarkozy said in a statement that the attack would not diminish France's support for the war in Afghanistan. "My determination is intact," he said. "France is determined to continue the struggle against terrorism for democracy and freedom. The cause is just."

Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, expressed sorrow over the losses. "This is a difficult time right now for the families and friends of those who died or were injured," Blanchette said in a statement. "The lives of these soldiers are irreplaceable, but this loss does not deter ISAF from supporting the people of Afghanistan in their fight against the enemies of peace and stability."

The battle on the outskirts of Kabul occurred amid increasing concern that Taliban insurgents were preparing a major attack on the capital itself. Insurgents have mounted several serious attacks on NATO and Afghan soldiers as well as civilians in areas near the eastern, western and southern edges of the city in recent months. Several rockets have been fired at the city.

The increased fighting has raised the international death toll. The Associated Press found that at least 44 international troops died in Afghanistan in June, compared to about 30 in Iraq

And, last week, three Western aid workers were killed by Taliban fighters who ambushed their marked convoy in Logar province, about 40 miles south of Kabul. The incident prompted the aid agency, the International Rescue Committee, to temporarily suspend its operations in the region.

Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said the mission's head, Kai Eide, recently met with several nongovernmental organizations to discuss growing security concerns in the region. In an effort to help minimize the threat to aid workers on highways, the United Nations has decided to increase the number of seats available to workers with such groups on its flights across the country, Siddique said. "We haven't seen this many security incidents since 2001," he said. "The security challenge we face is increasing."

Siddique added that Afghan security forces appear to be stepping up to the challenge. Noting the deployment Monday of about 7,000 Afghan soldiers and police in and around Kabul because of Independence Day celebrations, Siddique said increased involvement of Afghan forces appears to be helping to buttress the capital's defenses.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.