French army hands over key province to Afghan forces

The French military Wednesday handed over a key Afghan province to local forces, completing an important stage in France's accelerated withdrawal from the war-torn country.

The province of Kapisa was the last area of Afghanistan under the control of French troops, the bulk of whom are due to leave by the end of 2012, two years earlier than the main NATO deadline.

France is the fifth largest contributor to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is due to pull out the vast majority of its 130,000 forces by the end of 2014.

Kapisa, an extremely unstable province where French troops have suffered numerous deadly attacks from the Taliban, lies to the northeast of Kabul, near the insurgent-infested provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.

In 2011, 24 French soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, all in Kapisa.

The handover, marked on Wednesday by a ceremony in the provincial capital Mahmood-e-Raqi, will have little noticeable effect on the ground, where the French soldiers will continue to help train local forces as preparations for the pullout go ahead.

Wednesday's ceremony "lets everyone see that Afghans are taking over their security. But it is above all a symbol and does not change the transition process", a French security source told AFP.

Before his election in May, Hollande promised to speed up France's withdrawal from Afghanistan so it would be completed by the end of 2012 -- a year earlier than Paris initially planned and two years before the NATO deadline.

France plans to withdraw 2,000 troops fighting with ISAF against the decade-long Taliban insurgency this year, leaving behind around 1,500 soldiers to train local forces and help organise the return of military equipment.

On Tuesday Pakistan agreed to reopen overland supply routes to Afghanistan from its Arabian Sea port of Karachi, seven months after closing them in protest at a US air raid that killed 24 of its soldiers.

The end of the blockade, which came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said sorry for the deaths, will greatly ease the process of withdrawing 10 years' worth of military equipment from Afghanistan.

Many observers have serious doubts about the ability of Afghan security forces to maintain security and keep the Taliban at bay after the NATO withdrawal.

Kapisa, strategically located near the Afghan capital and close to the border with the Pakistani tribal areas which are a Taliban heartland, has the potential to become a real headache for Kabul.

But Francois Guillermet, spokesman for the French army in Afghanistan, insisted local forces were capable of containing the insurgents.

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