French combat troops withdraw from Afghan war

KABUL (Reuters) - France withdrew its combat troops from Afghanistan on Tuesday, marking the end of its battlefield role in the NATO-led war after a presence of more than 10 years.

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Four hundred French troops returned to the Afghan capital after four years of combat operations in nearby Kapisa province and Kabul’s Sarobi district, a spokesman for the French military said, adding they would return to France within days.

“Today is the end of our forward operations. By the end of the year, we will have 1,500 French troops remaining in Afghanistan in non-combat operations,” said Lt. Col Guillaume Leroy.

Of those remaining troops, 1,000 will help return military equipment to France and 500 will stay on to provide training for Afghanistan’s fledgling army, he said.

France joins Canada and the Netherlands in ending its combat role in Afghanistan.

France’s early exit was initiated by President Francois Hollande, who was strongly criticized by NATO for accelerating the withdrawal two years ahead of the alliance’s timetable.

At its height, France provided 3,600 troops in the 130,000-strong, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), making it the fifth-largest contributor.

At least 85 French soldiers have been killed in the war.

Most foreign troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, when security will be handed over to the 350,000-strong Afghan army and police force.

That pullout has sparked fear among many Afghans that a perceived power vacuum could turn into civil war.

Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Jon Boyle