Sarkozy flying to Afghanistan after French deaths

PARIS (Reuters) – President Nicolas Sarkozy prepared to fly to Afghanistan on Tuesday after 10 French soldiers were killed and 21 wounded in a clash with Taliban insurgents, and declared France remained committed to its mission there.

“My determination is intact. France is determined to continue the struggle against terrorism for democracy and freedom. The cause is just. It is an honor for France and its army to defend it,” Sarkozy said in a statement.

The soldiers, from three elite paratroop and marine regiments, were killed in a fierce battle when their unit was ambushed on a reconnaissance mission in the Sarobi district, some 60 km (40 miles) east of Kabul on Monday.

The loss was the worst suffered by the French army in a single incident since 58 paratroops were killed by a suicide bomber in Lebanon in 1983 and the worst in combat with enemy forces since the Algerian war that ended in 1962.

The United States and Britain expressed sympathy and solidarity with France while stressing that the effort in Afghanistan continued.

“It’s a difficult time for France, but the French have issued a statement saying they plan to stay the course in Afghanistan,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “Theirs was a sacrifice not just for France but for all of us who want to help the Afghan people build a better future for themselves.”

FLAGS AT HALF MAST

In the southwestern French town of Castres, where the unit that lost most men is based, all flags flew at half mast.

“We know them, we work with them on various occasions away from their purely military activities, so of course it touches us very closely. They’re really part of our life,” said Pascal Bugis, the Castres mayor.

France has a total of 2,600 soldiers in Afghanistan, serving with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the U.S.-led Enduring Freedom mission and involved in peacekeeping, combat and training operations.

Sarkozy sent a 700-strong reinforcement after the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, a move that was criticized by the Socialist opposition at the time as threatening to involve France in a Vietnam-style military quagmire.

A French aid group, ACTED, said one of its Afghan employees was found murdered on Tuesday in the Kundunz area. The group said the man, a community trainer, had been abducted two days before and it was unclear who killed him and why.

The French Communist party issued a statement condemning the “reckless and dangerous policy that has bogged France down in Afghanistan”.

However a series of statements from senior ministers stressed France’s presence there was not in question.

“France will continue to assume its responsibilities for a democratic and peaceful Afghanistan,” Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement.

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