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France eyes sending troops to Afghan combat zone

PARIS (Reuters) - France may send hundreds of ground troops to east Afghanistan where NATO-led forces are fighting al Qaeda-backed insurgents, Le Monde newspaper reported on Tuesday.

British soldiers take a break after securing an area during medical assistance in Kabul February 26, 2008. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

It said the move would be part of a new Afghan policy being worked out by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his advisers.

France has about 1,900 soldiers under NATO’s Afghan command, most of them based in relatively calm Kabul, and Le Monde said the fresh troops would be deployed outside the capital.

“Their destination would be zones of potentially fierce fighting, preferably the eastern region of Afghanistan close to the tribal areas of Pakistan,” it said.

Early last year, France withdrew 200 special forces soldiers who had been operating under U.S. command in Afghanistan, but Le Monde said Paris was now expected to sanction the return of the special forces. About 50 remained to train Afghan commandos.

A presidential spokesman declined to confirm or deny the newspaper report. “The president has not made a decision. We are in discussion with our partners, inside NATO but not exclusively,” he said.

An alliance source said the plan was one of a number of options that France was discussing with allies ahead of an April summit in Bucharest at which alliance leaders will look to give new impetus to the security mission.

Under the plan, the deployment of French soldiers to the east would free up U.S. forces there to go and help Canadian troops fighting insurgents in the south.

“Our understanding is that there is no decision on this. There is a long way to go until Bucharest,” said the source.

Washington is heading a campaign for what it calls a fairer sharing of the burden in the fight against Taliban insurgents. Britain, Canada, Poland and others have backed the U.S. demand.

Germany, Italy and Spain have troops in relatively secure areas and have refused to send troops to southern and eastern provinces where the militants are most active.

At a meeting in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius this month, NATO defense ministers with troops fighting the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan backed calls by the United States for more countries to send forces there.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last week the alliance’s future rested on its mission in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, senior Canadian officials had talks in Paris on a possible offer of French support for 2,500 Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan.

Since his election in May, Sarkozy has sent more combat aircraft to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and beefed up French efforts to train the Afghan army.

Reporting by Andrew Dobbie in Paris and Mark John in Brussels; Editing by Robert Woodward