France takes charge of NATO troops in Kabul

France has taken command of NATO's 5,000-strong contingent deployed in and around Kabul, with the aim of handing over responsibility for the capital region to Afghan security forces within a year.


France took command Tuesday of about 5,000 NATO-led soldiers deployed in Kabul and surrounding areas with the aim of handing over to Afghan forces within a year, a French general told AFP.

France took over from Italy, which also routinely rotates with Turkey in commanding the troops from the 40-nation International Security Assistance (ISAF) deployment.

"Our mission is to transfer within a year the responsibility for the capital region to the Afghan security forces," French General Michel Stollsteiner told AFP after a ceremony attended by the head of ISAF, US General David McKiernan.

The handover of power would happen in stages, starting with Afghan security forces taking charge of the city centre around summer and then gradually expanding their role to cover the whole of Kabul province, he said.

The transfer of command is significant because it would be the first province where Afghan security forces take over from ISAF, which is deployed across the country.

France has about 2,800 soldiers in ISAF, which numbers about 52,700 troops -- most of them Americans. Most of France's soldiers are in Kabul province.

By taking command of the Kabul region, France is confirming its growing engagement in Afghanistan as announced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in April.

French reinforcements are being deployed to Kapisa province, east of Kabul, and the country's deployment is expected to reach 3,000 by the end of August.

Kabul has seen several deadly attacks over the past years, most blamed on insurgents aligned to the extremist Taliban movement that was driven from government in an invasion led by the United States in late 2001.

But the most intense unrest is in the south and east of Afghanistan, areas along the border with Pakistan.

The violence has climbed steadily despite a growth in the number of international soldiers in the country, now at nearly 70,000 in all between ISAF and a separate US-led coalition.

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