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Sarkozy says 1,000 French troops to leave Afghanistan

Following Panetta's lead, Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Afghanistan to announce intentions to withdraw one quarter of French troops by the end of 2012

Reuters , Tuesday 12 Jul 2011
Afghan President Karzai shakes hands with the his French counterpart Sarkozy in Kabul (photo by Reut
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on an unannounced five-hour visit to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai and General David Petraeus and drop in on French troops in the region of Surobi, said France's remaining soldiers would be based in Kapisa province, north-east of Afghanistan.

"We will pull out a quarter of our contingent, which is to say 1,000 soldiers, between now and the end of 2012," Sarkozy said in a speech to French troops at a base near Kabul.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the withdrawal would be limited to the Surobi region. "We believe this region is now secure and the time has come to pass the baton to the Afghan troops," Juppe told France Info radio in Paris.

Sarkozy's visit followed a trip by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the weekend and comes after the United States and France said in June that they would pull soldiers out faster than expected from the nearly decade-old military campaign against Taliban insurgents.

French soldiers have been involved in the US- and NATO-led Afghanistan operation since 2001 and France has lost 64 soldiers from its 4,000-strong contingent, including a soldier killed on Monday by an accidental shot from his own camp in Kapisa.

The quicker pullout could give Sarkozy a boost ahead of the April 2012 presidential election, where he faces a tough battle from the left-wing opposition to win a second term.

An opinion poll after the US killing of former al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May showed more than half of French people support a withdrawal.

Sarkozy's speech to French soldiers came two days before France's "Bastille Day" national day, which marks the start of the 1789 revolution and will this year honour troops on foreign missions.

Sarkozy's trip also comes shortly after the surprise release of two French TV journalists who had been held hostage by the Taliban for a year and a half in Afghanistan and who were greeted as heros on their return to France at the end of June.

The visit coincided with the killing of Karzai's influential brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

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