NIJRAB, AFGHANISTAN (BNO NEWS) — Four French soldiers were killed on Saturday morning when a suicide bomber dressed in a burqa blew himself up near their patrol in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan and French officials said. Two Afghan interpreters were also killed.
The attack happened at around 9 a.m. local time when French soldiers disembarked from their armored vehicles to make contact with Afghan civilians at a small bazaar north of Nijrab, a village in Kapisa province which borders Pakistan. “That’s when an Afghan detonated his explosives while surrounded by a group of French soldiers,” a spokesperson for the French Ministry of Defense said.
The ministry said four French soldiers and two of their Afghan interpreters were killed, in addition to the unidentified suicide bomber. Injured were five French soldiers, three of them seriously, and two Afghan civilians who were flown to a military hospital in Kabul. The condition of the Afghan civilians was not immediately known.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack. “A heroic Mujahid (Muslim fighter) of the Islamic Emirate (Taliban), Mutiualllah, coming from Kabul province, took the said group of French invaders off guard and blew up his explosive-filled vest among them,” he said.
The Afghan interior ministry said the attacker was disguised as a woman by wearing a burqa.
French President François Hollande condemned the attack and expressed his condolences to the families of the victims. “I wish to express my gratitude and that of the whole nation to our soldiers,” he said. “I salute their dedication and courage. I know the strength of character of our troops engaged in Afghanistan.”
Hollande said he asked Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and army chief Edouard Guillaud to visit French troops in Afghanistan on Sunday to support them. “A national tribute will be paid to the victims and the wounded will be repatriated as soon as possible,” he said during a news conference. “A plane has already left and will ensure they are back as soon as possible.”
The new French president also announced France will begin its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July and complete it by the end of the year. It was the first confirmation of when the French pullout will begin, but it was not immediately clear if the July start date had already been chosen or if it was set after Saturday’s deadly attack.
“This operation (to withdraw French troops) will begin in July,” Hollande said on Saturday. “It will be implemented and completed by the end of the year in 2012. Until then, everything must be done for our troops to meet their obligations but with a high level of security and greater vigilance.”
Last month, days after being sworn into office, Hollande made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to meet with French troops, pay his respects to the French soldiers killed during the war, and meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. A total of 87 French service members have now died in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.
Hollande has received criticism for going ahead with his election pledge to pull out French combat troops by the end of 2012, a year earlier than the deadline set by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and two years before the 130,000-strong U.S.-led NATO force is scheduled to withdraw.
“The mission of fighting terrorism and chasing out the Taliban is close to being accomplished,” Hollande said during his visit to Afghanistan last month. “This is something we can be very proud of.” With about 3,300 soldiers, France is the fifth largest contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Hollande wants to withdraw 2,000 of them by the end of the year, leaving only 1,300 non-combat troops.
The new French president has said the withdrawal, which he called a ‘sovereign decision’, will take place in close consultation with the Afghan government and NATO allies. The remaining 1,300 non-combat troops will oversee the repatriation of equipment, provide support and train Afghan security forces.
U.S. President Barack Obama previously ordered a drawdown of 23,000 U.S. troops by the end of this summer, and foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The ISAF force currently includes some 90,000 U.S. soldiers and more than 9,500 British soldiers.