France denies preparing new Afghanistan troop boost
By Francois Murphy
PARIS (Reuters) - France on Thursday denied a report that it is setting aside roughly 1,000 troops for possible deployment in Afghanistan, a move that would be a boon to the United States, which wants NATO countries to do more there.
Weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine reported on Wednesday that President Nicolas Sarkozy had asked the head of the armed forces to keep a batallion of about 1,000 men at NATO's disposal so that they could be dispatched to Afghanistan if needed.
Asked about the report, Defense Ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire said France had a batallion in NATO's strategic reserve, and there had been no change regarding its status.
"There is no evolution," he told a weekly news conference.
"I confirm that there is indeed something called the strategic reserve and that France contributes a batallion to this strategic reserve," he added.
France has roughly 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, where it is part of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force. Paris said in June that around 150 extra soldiers would be sent to train Afghan forces, and a further 50 such troops have been pledged since then.
Washington says it wants more NATO countries to get involved in the heavy fighting against Taliban forces in the south and east of the country, a task done mainly by U.S., British, Dutch and Canadian troops.
Sarkozy has made improving ties with the United States a top diplomatic priority after his predecessor Jacques Chirac angered Washington by opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, sparking a bitter trans-Atlantic row.
French and U.S. officials say there has been a thaw in relations since Sarkozy took office in May, and both sides have been at pains in recent weeks to highlight the depth and warmth of ties between the two nations.
Sarkozy has supported the U.S. push for a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, and he said after meeting U.S. President George W. Bush last week that he was looking at how best to help in Afghanistan.
"We are thinking about the best way to help the emergence of a democratic Afghanistan," Sarkozy said at a joint news conference with Bush on November 7.
"Is it by reinforcing the training effort to lay the foundations of a modern Afghan state? Is it by providing other military means? We are discussing it," he added.
Asked on Thursday whether France was looking to increase its military presence in Afghanistan, Sarkozy's spokesman David Martinon said it was too soon to tell.
"As you know, important measures have been taken regarding the reinforcement of the French presence on the ground, so let's let these three teams establish themselves before adding any more," he told a news conference, referring to the 150 extra troops, which are due to be deployed before the end of the year.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy and James Mackenzie)