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France could boost troops in Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France could boost its presence in Afghanistan to help the Afghan army and police in a surprise visit to give French troops his Christmas greetings.

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“There is a war going on here, a war against terrorism, against fanaticism that we cannot and will not lose,” he told reporters who accompanied him.

He said the French troops, currently 1,900, would help the Afghan army, police, administration and judiciary. Sarkozy said a decision on troop numbers was due in the next few weeks.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar on Tuesday called on foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. Diplomats and the local military have called for a new strategy to fight the rebels.

“What is certain is that we have not wanted to give the signal of departure, that would have been a despicable signal at a time when one sees the ravages inflicted by terrorism in the world,” Sarkozy said.

Britain, which has about 7,800 troops operating in Afghanistan, part of a 40,000-strong NATO stabilisation force, is expected to increase that number over time as it draws down in Iraq, but no formal announcement has been made.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has unveiled what he called a new framework on Afghanistan, with plans to provide assistance of about 450 million pounds between 2009 and 2012 and to bolster training of the armed forces.

New Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also visited Afghanistan on Saturday for meeting Australian forces who like the French troops serve under NATO’s command and for holding talks with President Hamid Karzai.

Rudd, who was elected on November 24, spoke of his country’s continued support for Afghanistan and pledged an additional $110 million for the coming two years for the central Asian nation.

Earlier in the day, Sarkozy held talks with Karzai and the two leaders said Afghanistan’s poor security and opium production were its major challenges, the Afghan presidential palace said in a statement.

It is Sarkozy’s first trip to Afghanistan since he became president in May and coincides with an increase in violence in the country over the past two years, the bloodiest period since the Taliban’s overthrow.

Sarkozy said France “had paid the price in blood” for helping consolidate democracy in Afghanistan as 13 French soldiers have died.

France has stationed troops in Afghanistan since late 2001, when U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban government from power.

French forces are mostly stationed in the relatively secure capital Kabul and France has been repeatedly urged by NATO members to dispatch its forces to eastern and southern areas where Taliban militants are most active.

More than 330 foreign troops, including some French and several Australian soldiers, have been killed in the battle against the Taliban-led insurgency in the past two years in Afghanistan.

The French presidential plane was accompanied by two Mirage fighter jets and the visit had been kept secret until the last moment out of security concerns. Sarkozy, who met the Pope in Vatican City on Thursday, is expected back in Paris on Saturday.

Reporting by pool reporter with Sarkozy and Elisabeth Pineau in Paris; Writing by Marcel Michelson; Editing by Richard Balmforth