A suicide bomber dressed in a burka blew himself up near a French patrol in Afghanistan on Saturday, killing four soldiers and wounding five in one of the deadliest attacks on the French contingent in months.
The attack occurred in the mountainous Kapisa province in the east of the country, an area mainly patrolled by a French force under Nato command.
“It was an unfortunate incident. There was a patrol of coalition soldiers in a small bazaar and they were attacked by a suicide bomber wearing a burka,” said Sediq Sediqqi, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman.
French President Francois Hollande’s office in Paris confirmed that the soldiers involved in the attack were French.
A statement from his office said among the five wounded, three were in a serious condition, and Mr Hollande would dispatch defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Afghanistan on Sunday.
Until Saturday’s incident, 83 French soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan since the US-led military intervention began in 2001 – the fourth highest number of military deaths by nation, behind the United States, Britain and Canada.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in the Nijrab district of the province, saying in an email message that a suicide attacker had struck the foreign soldiers.
Violence has surged across Afghanistan in recent weeks, with the Taliban vowing to target the Western-backed Afghan government and security forces, as well as the 130,000 foreign troops in the country, most of whom are due to leave by the end of 2014.
France plans to withdraw most of its roughly 3,400 troops by the end of this year, two years ahead of the timetable agreed by Nato. French troops have suffered a series of attacks including several by rogue Afghan soldiers, triggering demands in France for their troops to be brought home early.
Last month Mr Hollande, during a visit to the volatile province, defended the decision to pull out early, saying the job of fighting terrorism was nearly done, and France would focus on co-operating on the civilian front.
France’s decision has raised concerns that other members of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition may follow its example and accelerate their withdrawal plans, handing security prematurely to fledgling Afghan forces.
Kapisa is one of the provinces scheduled to be handed over to Afghan forces in the current third phase of transition before 2014.