French minister in Afghanistan after deaths

France's defence minister arrived in Afghanistan Sunday, the day after an attack that killed four French soldiers and an announcement that France would begin withdrawing troops in July.

Shortly after touching down, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attended a ceremony to honour the dead soldiers, whose coffins -- draped in flags -- were at Kabul's heavily fortified military airport.

Details of Le Drian's full programme in Afghanistan have not been released but he is expected to address French troops and meet Afghan government officials.

Saturday's attack by a burqa-clad Taliban suicide bomber was the first fatal strike against the French since Francois Hollande took office as president last month. The head of state said the country would pay "national homage" to the dead.

Speaking after the attack in eastern Afghanistan, Hollande, who had already promised to bring combat troops home by the end of the year, announced the withdrawal would begin next month.

Five other troops were wounded in the attack in Nijrab district in Kapisa province, where most of France's 3,500 soldiers in Afghanistan are stationed, officials said. Three were in a critical condition.

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 the suicide attack had not changed his plans.

"What happened does not change anything, it neither accelerates nor delays" withdrawal, 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 the French departure, saying Afghan troops were ready to take over, and US General John Allen, the NATO force commander, has said there will be no reduction in security in Kapisa.

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

"If France withdraws its troops without a proper plan, without considering its side affects, this will destroy and undermine all France's achievements and the sacrifices they made in Afghanistan," said political analyst Younus Fakor.

"Kapisa district security will deteriorate, the Taliban will take over those areas if immediate security measures are not taken, and Kapisa will become a safe haven for the Taliban," he told AFP.

Routes to Kabul from Taliban flashpoints on the Pakistani border run through Kapisa province, and it has proved a tough operation for the French, troubled by turf wars between Islamist insurgents and drug dealers.

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.

The deaths were the first French fatalities 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.

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.

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