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France may send extra troops to Afghanistan

1/04/2008 - 17:27

By Francois Murphy

PARIS (Reuters) - France might send a few hundred extratroops to Afghanistan, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said onTuesday, clashing with the opposition Socialists who accusedthe government of pandering to the United States.

Sarkozy said last week France would boost its militarypresence provided NATO allies accept certain proposals at asummit in Bucharest this week, such as working on a broaderstrategy for Afghanistan, which they are expected to do.

France has been expected to send an extra 1,000 troops inaddition to its 1,500 soldiers already serving in the47,000-strong NATO force there, but Fillon appeared to indicatethe size of the reinforcement could be smaller.

"Our armed forces in Afghanistan may invest more in thecommand structures, particularly in Kabul, in training theAfghan army and in the units in the Afghan provinces," he tolda parliamentary debate on the Afghan operation.

"The numbers could be something like a few hundred extrasoldiers," Fillon said.

NATO members such as the United States, Britain and Canada,have urged allies to send more troops to help battle aresurgent Taliban, but the Socialists said Sarkozy was puttingU.S. interests before France's.

"We oppose this decision because at the end of the day ithas little to do with Afghanistan and a lot to do withPresident Sarkozy's Atlanticist obsession," said Jean-MarcAyrault, head of the Socialist group in the lower house ofparliament.

Sarkozy's plan was part of a "global strategic alignment"with Washington, not a partnership of equals, he said.

CENSURE

A BVA opinion poll released on Monday showed most Frenchpeople opposed the plan -- 68 percent of respondentsdisapproved of sending more soldiers while just 15 percentapproved.

Fillon said increasing the number of French troops wouldimprove the chances of bringing peace to Afghanistan.

"Part of our security, and therefore part of our freedomdepends largely on this peace for Afghanistan," Fillon said.

Ayrault said the Socialists would submit a motion ofcensure against the government for not allowing a vote inparliament on whether to send more troops. Fillon said therewas no need for a vote as French soldiers were already activein Afghanistan.

France's constitution gives the president the power to sendtroops to combat zones without the approval of parliament.

In Copenhagen, visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gatessaid the force's commander wanted an extra three brigades forthe mission, but acknowledged: "I don't think they'll beanywhere near that number. This is a challenge we'll have tokeep working at."

NATO powers will meet in the Romanian capital from April 2to 4 and Afghanistan is expected to be a main issue. Frenchdiplomats said that if France increased its contribution, itwould do so on the understanding that other countries wouldtoo.

(Editing by Crispian Balmer and Jon Boyle)


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