Bomber kills 4 French troops in Afghanistan

A Taliban suicide bomber wearing a burqa killed four French soldiers and wounded five others Saturday in an attack on a NATO-led patrol in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.

Speaking after the attack, French President Francois Hollande, who has promised to bring combat troops home by the end of the year, announced that the withdrawal will begin next month.

"In the meantime, everything must be done for our troops to meet their obligations but with the highest level of security and with the greatest vigilance for the lives of the soldiers," he said.

Three of the wounded were in critical condition after the attack in the Nijrab district of Kapisa province, where most of France's 3,500 soldiers in the country are stationed.

It was the first fatal incident among the French since Hollande took over as head of state last month, and the president said France would pay "national homage" to the dead.

He also asked Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to head to Afghanistan on Sunday.

Hollande reiterated his vow to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2012 -- a year earlier than Paris initially planned, and two years before NATO allies -- saying that the suicide attack had not changed his plans.

"What happened does not change anything, it neither accelerates nor delays" withdrawal plans, he said. While some have called for the pullout to be sped up, "it is not possible to go faster," he added.

NATO allies have downplayed the effect of their early departure, saying Afghan troops are ready to take over.

And US General John Allen, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said there will be no drop in safety in Kapisa.

But the province, which controls part of the access to Kabul from Taliban flashpoints on the Pakistani border, has proved a tough fight for the French, troubled by turf wars between the Islamist insurgents and drug dealers.

And there are fears that Afghan forces will not be able to fill the security vacuum.

On a visit to Afghanistan last month, Hollande said 2,000 combat troops would leave in a coordinated withdrawal this year, but vowed not to abandon the country.

Taliban militants claimed responsibility for Saturday's suicide attack in a text message sent to reporters.

Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told AFP the attacker was on foot and wearing a burqa.

"This morning a suicide bomber on foot disguised as a woman with a burqa on approached the French troops who were on patrol in Nijrab. He detonated his explosives that caused some fatalities," he said.

Three civilians were wounded in the attack, he added.

These are the first French deaths in Afghanistan since January 20, when an Afghan soldier fired on unarmed French trainers, killing five and wounding 15. The death toll for French troops now stands at 87.

Kapisa has been included in the third of a five-phase transfer from NATO to Afghan security forces. Afghan officials say the transfer could take as little as six months, but ISAF has put the timetable at 12-18 months.

The relatively quiet Kabul district of Surobi, where French troops are also based, was handed over to local control in April.

On his visit to Afghanistan last month, Hollande explained his decision to recall French combat troops by the end of the year.

"It's a sovereign decision. Only France can decide what France does," he told soldiers at Nijrab Base.

There are about 130,000 NATO troops fighting alongside Afghan government forces against the Taliban insurgency. A US-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks.

Analysts have expressed concern about NATO's withdrawal, pointing out that Afghan forces have a mixed record at best and questioning whether a security vacuum will heighten violence if not hasten a return to civil war.

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