French army denies reports of Italy paying bribes to Taliban
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France's military has denied a British newspaper report that the Italian army failed to inform its French ally that it was paying off the Taliban in Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of 10 French soldiers in an ambush on August 2008.
AFP - The French military Thursday dismissed as "baseless" a British newspaper report that French troops died in Afghanistan because Italy had failed to inform them of a Taliban payoff deal.
The Times of London said 10 French soldiers were killed in Sarobi district east of Kabul in August 2008 because they were not told that Italy had been paying the Taliban not to carry out attacks and failed to properly assess risks.
Admiral Christophe Prazuck, spokesman for the armed forces general staff, said he had "no information enabling us to confirm the reports published in the British press."
"These are rumours, and it is not the first time we have heard them," Prazuck said, dismissing the report as "baseless."
"French forces are present along with the Turks and Italians in the Kabul region where we have been commanding operations in a coordinated and fully transparent manner for more than two years," he said.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's office also described the report as "totally baseless".
"The Berlusconi government has never authorised any kind of money payment to members of the Taliban insurrection in Afghanistan, and has no knowledge of initiatives of this type by the previous government," it said.
General Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, told AFP that he was "not aware" of Italy having paid off Taliban militants.
"If it does go on, it's the Afghan government (that does it) rather than international forces," he said.
But a senior officer with the Afghan army insisted Italian forces had bribed Taliban fighters to avoid being targeted.
"We knew that Italian forces were paying the opposition (fighters) in Sarobi so they would not be attacked. We have information on similar agreements made in the western Herat province by Italian soldiers under NATO command there," the army officer said on condition of anonymity.
"A lot of NATO countries with troops operating in the rural areas of Afghanistan pay the insurgents so not to be attacked," the officer added.
Earlier on Thursday, the father of one of the French soldiers killed spoke of his grief in an interview with France's RTL radio.
"It was a terrible blow, it just makes the pain even worse," Joel Le Pahun said. "It reopens a wound that has yet to heal. We want the French officers responsible for what happened to be punished.
"If it turns out to be true the Italians did this, it would not do honour to their army or their government. On top of that, the fact they failed to tell the French forces about it is truly catastrophic on their behalf."
The Times report said that because the French knew nothing of the bribes they made a "catastrophically incorrect threat assessment" of the area.
The French had been in charge of the area for just a month when the 10 soldiers were killed in an ambush in one of the biggest single losses of life for NATO forces in Afghanistan, it said.
This explains why the French troops were relatively lightly armed and insufficiently backed up by air cover when they were ambushed by 170 heavily armed insurgents, the report added.
France's Socialist opposition demanded that Defence Minister Herve Morin appear before the parliament's defence committee to provide an explanation over the claims.
The Socialist leader in parliament, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called for a review of the Afghan mission in which 2,900 French troops are serving in the NATO-led coalition battling Taliban guerrillas and training Afghan security forces.
France's Socialists voted against extending the mission last year, saying the country was being dragged into a "war of occupation".
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