French capture Afghan valley where 10 troops killed

UZBIN VALLEY, Afghanistan (Reuters) - French, Afghan and U.S. troops have captured a valley where 10 French soldiers were killed last year in the single biggest combat loss for foreign troops in Afghanistan since 2001.

The 800-strong force marched into the valley, a stronghold of pro-Taliban insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to set up a base for the Afghan National Army.

U.S. planes thundered overhead, providing air support for a mission that hopes to curb the flow of insurgents toward the capital, Kabul, by cutting off a key mountain pass.

The Uzbin valley is an important transit point for insurgents traveling from Pakistan to the Kapisa valley, east of the main U.S. base at Bagram, according to military sources who declined to be named.

Violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest level since the U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban government in 2001, despite a growing number of foreign troops, and has spread from the south and east to the outskirts of the capital.

Hekmatyar claimed responsibility for the attack on French forces from the 8th Parachute regiment in the pass last August.

“The threat is higher than usual in this mission,” a French lieutenant told his troops at the start of the mission.

“The presence of a warlord with about 15 fighters has been confirmed 3 km (1.5. miles) north of police station,” the lieutenant said, adding that reinforcements were expected that could bring the number of insurgents as high as 150.

However the column did not meet any resistance and arrived just before dark on a plateau at the heart of the valley, overlooking several small villages.

Soldiers began digging foxholes on the site of the base, which will be permanently occupied by 280 Soldiers of the Afghan National Army and have space for a company of French troops if needed.

Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Richard Balmforth