PARIS (Reuters) - France paid tribute on Thursday to its 10 soldiers killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, and the government said parliament would debate the army’s presence there after the country’s worst military loss in 25 years.
At a religious ceremony in the golden-domed Invalides palace that houses the remains of military leaders including Napoleon Bonaparte, the dead men’s crying relatives stroked and kissed their flag-draped coffins in front of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The shock caused by the deaths has given way to questions on the conditions in which the attack occurred, with some media reporting that there had been communications breakdowns, support was slow in arriving, the men were poorly equipped and that they came under fire from allied aircraft sent to help.
“At the moment I am speaking to you, I have never been so aware of what the solitude of a head of state could be in the face of the decisions he has to take,” Sarkozy said in a eulogy to the dead men, part of the “national tribute” to them.
“I want to ensure your colleagues are never in such a situation. I want all the lessons to be drawn from what happened,” Sarkozy said, without elaborating.
France, the United States and NATO have said they have no indication that the men came under “friendly fire” from jets sent to assist them, but Paris has said that what happened during the 12-hour clash will be examined in full.
Defence Minister Herve Morin told RTL radio France would set about “drawing the consequences in terms of equipment on the military escorting of our operations and of the missions that are conducted in Afghanistan”.
The attack, in which 21 men were wounded, caused the heaviest loss of life by the French army since a truck bomb killed 58 paratroopers in Lebanon in 1983, and the worst by allied forces in combat in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion.
France has about 2,600 troops stationed in the country.
Sarkozy has repeatedly declared that France’s engagement in Afghanistan remains intact and few politicians have called for a pullout but there are growing questions about the strategy being followed by France and its allies in the region.
An opinion poll to appear in the daily Le Parisien on Friday found 55 percent of people thought France should pull out of the conflict, although 48 percent declared they trusted Sarkozy over Afghanistan, against 46 percent who did not.
The opposition Socialists, who criticized Sarkozy’s decision this year to send an extra 700 troops to Afghanistan, demanded a parliamentary committee meet to discuss France’s military presence there and its objectives.
Apparently bowing to the pressure, government spokesman Luc Chatel said an extraordinary session of parliament would be called on France’s presence in Afghanistan, during which the government would make a statement and a debate would be held.
He did not say when the session would take place.
Sarkozy has, however, said France will keep fighting.
“We do not have the right to lose over there. We do not have the right to give up on defending our values. We do not have the right to let the barbarians triumph, because defeat at the other end of the world will come at the cost of a defeat on the territory of the French Republic,” Sarkozy said.
Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels; Editing by Michael Winfrey/Tony Austin