French President Nicolas Sarkozy has told French troops in Kabul that a deadly ambush against one of their patrols would not dampen France's commitment to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.
Ten French soldiers were killed and 21 injured late on August 18 when their patrol was attacked in a pass through the mountainous Sarobi district, about 60 kilometers east of Kabul.
It was the deadliest battle ever for French forces in Afghanistan -- and one of the deadliest for international forces since the Taliban regime was ousted from power in late 2001. The death toll raised to 24 the number of French soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2002.
Speaking at Camp Warehouse, the main base for international forces on the outskirts of Kabul, Sarkozy said he had traveled to Kabul to tell French soldiers that the work they are doing in Afghanistan is "essential."
Sarkozy said that despite the shock of the ambush, he is convinced that French troops should remain in Afghanistan with other international forces that support Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and fight Islamic militants.
Then, after visiting a morgue where the bodies of the 10 slain soldiers were being held before repatriation to France, Sarkozy told survivors of the battle that the best way to be loyal to their fallen comrades is to continue their work, raise their heads, and "be professional."
Later, Sarkozy was saluted by the Afghan presidential guard upon his arrival at the Presidential Palace in Kabul. Karzai came outside the palace to meet Sarkozy personally on the red carpet near the front gate of the presidential compound. He told Sarkozy that he is "a great friend of Afghanistan...[and] a man of great principles."
Sarkozy was accompanied on his trip by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defense Minister Herve Morin.
Hours earlier, French soldiers at Camp Warehouse had gathered around televisions to watch a live news conference broadcast from Paris in which Morin explained what the deadly incident.
Morin said the ambushed French troops were from three elite paratroop and marine regiments. He said they were conducting a reconnaissance patrol as part of a joint mission with U.S. Special Forces and soldiers from the Afghan National Army.
Morin says the French patrol had just moved into a pass -- a long valley between Kabul and Jalalabad that is flanked on two sides by rough mountains -- when they came under fire from militants.
"This detachment was involved in a big ambush by a group of about 100 insurgents," he said. "The combat was fierce and intense fighting and lasted several hours, continuing late into the night."
The loss was the worst suffered by the French army in a single incident since 58 paratroopers were killed by a suicide bomber in Lebanon in 1983. And it was the deadliest battle for France since the Algerian war that ended in 1962.
Earlier this year, under pressure from other countries in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, Sarkozy decided to bolster the French contingent in Afghanistan. There are now some 2,600 French soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the force.