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French soldiers killed, wounded in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Four French soldiers were killed and five wounded on Saturday in the eastern province of Kapisa, the French government said.

The deaths are likely to increase the pressure on France’s newly-elected president François Hollande to fulfil his promise to withdraw his country’s combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Hollande’s office said in a statement Saturday that three of the wounded soldiers were in a serious condition and an investigation into the attack had begun, but offered few other details about the incident.

However, Afghan officials said a suicide bomber on foot had attacked a French patrol in the village of Jorghal in Nijrab district, wounding three Afghan civilians as well as the soldiers.

Nijrab police chief Haji Aleem Khan told McClatchy that the bomber, who struck just after 9am, had used a burqa to disguise himself when he launched his attack. Both Khan and Nijrab district chief Sultan Mohammad Safi put the number of French fatalities at six.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan is formerly known, would only confirm that four of its service members had been killed “following an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan.”

The Taliban in a website statement claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was carried out by one of its mujahideen (Islamic holy warriors) named Matiullah. It said the attacker, who was wearing an explosive vest, had killed 12 French soldiers and four Afghans, and wounded others.

However, the Taliban is known to routinely exaggerate the number of casualties it inflicts on ISAF and Afghan government forces.

Security in some areas of Kapisa – which borders Kabul province, to the northeast of the Afghan capital – has reportedly deteriorated in recent months. French troops, who have had responsibility for security there, are in the process of passing control to Afghan forces.

The initial decision to accelerate the withdrawal of French combat troops from Afghanistan was sparked by a “green-on-blue” attack in January, when an Afghan army soldier shot dead four of his French counterparts at a joint French-Afghan base at Kapisa. A fifth soldier later died from his wounds.

Then-president Nicolas Sarkozy brought the troops’ departure date forward by a year, to the end of 2013. Hollande, his successor, has resisted pressure from the White House to back away from his pledge to withdraw them 12 months earlier.

France, with a force of 3,300 in Afghanistan, is the fifth-largest troop contributor to ISAF.

Also on Saturday, ISAF reported that one of its service members had died after an improvised explosive device attack in eastern Afghanistan. The coalition refused to release any further details.