Ten French NATO soldiers were killed in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, the deadliest ground attack on foreign troops here since the US-led war was launched in 2001.
The shock ambush also left 21 French troops wounded, and prompted French President Nicolas Sarkozy to announce he would immediately head to the country, where recent monthly death tolls for foreign forces have topped those for Iraq.
News of the attack came as the resurgent Taliban attempted a mass suicide attack on a US military base, in a defiant reminder that tens of thousands of international troops have not been able to keep the Islamic militants at bay.
“Yesterday 10 of our soldiers… were killed in Afghanistan, 21 others were wounded during a joint reconnaissance mission with the Afghan national army,” Sarkozy said in a statement issued in Paris.
“In its struggle against terrorism, France has just been hit hard.”
The ambush took place in the district of Sarobi, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Kabul, the Afghan capital, which has been increasingly targeted by the Taliban insurgency.
Around 100 insurgents attacked a patrol of French and Afghan troops, said NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), under which about 3,000 French soldiers serve.
The fighting began Monday and lasted into Tuesday, it said in a statement.
“The initial patrol was reinforced with quick reaction forces, close air support and mobile medical teams. During the engagement a large number of insurgents were killed,” ISAF said.
“There was fierce fighting throughout the night,” said Afghan defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, who said at least 13 Taliban fighters had been killed in the clashes.
The extremist Taliban said it had attacked ISAF troops in Sarobi and blown up several vehicles. “We have inflicted heavy casualties,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told AFP.
Before the latest fighting, only around a dozen French soldiers had lost their lives in various incidents in Afghanistan since the French military deployed to the country in 2003.
Sarkozy, due to arrive in Afghanistan early Wednesday, said his trip to Kabul would be to reassure French troops serving in the NATO force that “France is at their side.”
US President George W. Bush offered his condolences, the White House said.
“The president was briefed on that this morning during his intelligence briefing, (and) sends his condolences to the loved ones of those lost, as well as those wounded,” spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the attack was “a disgraceful and barbaric act.”
The latest deaths brought to 176 the number of international soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year, most of them in attacks. Nine US soldiers were slain in July when insurgents stormed a base in the northeastern province of Kunar.
In the eastern town of Khost meanwhile, ISAF and Afghan troops thwarted an attack on Camp Salerno, the biggest US military base in eastern Afghanistan which is located 30 kilometres from the border with Pakistan.
About 30 fighters tried to storm Salerno, Khost province governor Arsala Jamal told AFP, but ISAF said they were stopped about 1,000 metres (yards) from the camp.
Troops in the base had identified them “posturing to attack the base and engaged them with small-arms fire,” the NATO force said. Helicopters arrived soon afterwards and opened fire on the rebels as they tried to flee.
Seven were killed, six of them suicide bombers, ISAF said. Azimi said 13 of the attackers were killed.
It was the second Taliban attack on the camp in as many days. A suicide car bomb outside the base on Monday killed 10 Afghan labourers waiting to enter and wounded 13 more.
The Taliban were driven from power in a US-led invasion in late 2001 because they would not hand over their Al-Qaeda allies wanted for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
But they regrouped, with some of them taking refuge in Pakistan, to launch a snowballing insurgency that military officials say is attracting more Arab, Pakistani and other Muslim fighters.
This year has seen some of the deadliest insurgent attacks, with violence said to be up 50 percent in some areas compared with 2007.
President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman however rejected suggestions that insurgents were closing in on Kabul.
“The government has full control over all parts of Afghanistan,” Homayun Hamidzada told reporters Tuesday, adding, “We are no doubt in a war, we must remember that we’re in a war with the enemies of Afghanistan.”