French jets support NATO action in Afghanistan

French Mirage fighter jets opened fire yesterday as part of a support mission for US-led forces hunting remnants of the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Defence Ministry said.

The operation came a day before Afghan President Hamid Karzai was expected to arrive in France to meet with officials including President Jacques Chirac and Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

Four Mirage fighters took part in yesterday’s mission in southern Afghanistan, in their first air support role since France deployed an air contingent in neighbouring Tajikistan in August, a Defence Ministry spokesman said, declining to elaborate on the operation.

The French contingent is on hand to support the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the separate US-led mission known as Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

France has made clear that it would not allow a NATO forces to become embroiled in offensive combat – leaving the Enduring Freedom force of 19,000 to pursue the counterinsurgency against Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts.

Meanwhile, Britain plans to deploy troops to volatile southern Afghanistan and take over command of the NATO security force in the country next year.

British defence Secretary John Reid has said that Britain is committed to leading the NATO force from May 2006 and running the headquarters of its rapid reaction force. NATO currently has 11,000 peacekeepers in Afghanistan, in the relatively stable north and west.

Early next year, Britain is expected to deploy troops under the NATO umbrella to southern Helmand province, a heartland of Afghanistan’s booming drug trade. Taliban insurgents, who have stepped up attacks this year, are also active in the region.

Canada has already deployed forces in neighbouring Kandahar province as part of NATO’s expansion into the south, slated for completion by mid-2006, and the Netherlands is also planning to send troops to the region.

The deployments NATO makes could free up thousands of American troops currently operating there.

Germany and France, however, have said they don’t want the NATO force to become embroiled in offensive combat. Spain is also wary of combining the alliance’s peacekeeping mission with the operations of the 20,000-strong US-led coalition.

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