Kabul: A suicide bomber killed five French soldiers on Wednesday, in a blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy`s struggle to defend his country`s role in Afghanistan just a day after he returned from the country.
Sarkozy`s likely rivals in next year`s Presidential Election immediately urged him to speed the withdrawal of French forces, and even before the latest bloodshed barely a quarter of voters backed France`s role in the conflict.
The President is due to honour troops returning from the front on Thursday at the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris, but the event will now be overshadowed by the most deadly attack on French forces since 2008.
Five soldiers, aged 27 to 38, and an Afghan civilian died and four more troops and three locals were "gravely wounded" in the attack on a unit protecting a local tribal council in Joybar in the Tagab valley of Kapisa province, east of Kabul.
"A terrorist detonated his bomb close to the French soldiers," Sarkozy`s Elysee Palace said, condemning the "cowardly murder" and expressing France`s determination to remain part of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said the attack took place after a meeting which was also attended by French military officials and Americans.
"When that meeting ended there was a suicide attack and an ambush," Longuet told France 2 television.
One of the wounded soldiers was in "very bad shape", the condition of the others was "under control".
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message to a news agency’s office in Kabul.
The attack was the worst setback for French forces since August 18, 2008, when 10 soldiers were killed and 21 injured when a patrol was ambushed by Taliban guerrillas in Uzbin, in the Sarobi district east of Kabul.
During Sarkozy`s three-hour visit on Tuesday, the commander of the French contingent, General Emmanuel Maurin, told him the Taliban was losing support among the Afghan population but becoming more radical.
He described the insurgents as "mobile, aggressive and intelligent" and said they were looking for an opportunity to strike France in a surprise attack.
The deaths brought to 69 the number of French soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2001, when they deployed to support the US-led campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime and hunt al Qaeda militants.
Military officials said the unit included elements of the 1st Parachute Regiment, based in Pamiers in the Ariege region of southern France.
The Bastille Day march is the highlight of the French military`s calendar, but will now be haunted by the ongoing violence in Afghanistan, amid calls for France to accelerate its withdrawal from the country.
Sarkozy announced on Tuesday during his trip to Sarobi that a quarter of France`s 4,000-strong contingent would come home before the end of next year. Polls show most French voters oppose the war.
"You must know how to end a war," Sarkozy told journalists at the base. "There was never a question of keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely."
He has said no French "combat units" will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, but his opponents have gone further.
Would-be Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande has vowed that if he wins next May`s election he will have all troops home within a year.
Another possible Socialist candidate, party leader Martine Aubry, reacted to the deaths by renewing her call for a "precise and determined" withdrawal plan.
"It`s time to get ourselves out of this dead end," she declared.
The French military is also in action in Libya, where the Air Force is taking a leading role in the NATO bombing campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and had dropped weapons to rebels fighting his forces.
French troops also helped overthrow former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo earlier this year after he refused to accept electoral defeat.
In all, France has 13,500 personnel deployed in overseas trouble spots.