France to Send 8 Attack Jets to Hit Bin Laden, Protect Troops
France is to send eight Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers to strike Osama bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan and protect an advance party of French ground troops, Defense Minister Alain Richard said Saturday.
"The objective is to establish security and to prevent the risk of a Taliban counter-attack," he told reporters in Paris as France stepped up its committment to the US-led coalition hunting bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
"We share the objective of attacking Al Qaeda's infrastructure and rear-bases in Afghanistan," he added.
Richard said 58 French troops who flew out of southern France on Friday would arrive Sunday to secure an airfield outside the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a former Taliban base now held by US-backed opposition forces.
France already has spy-planes and secret agents working in Afghanistan, but President Jacques Chirac's announcement Friday that combat aircraft would also be sent is a first for the US-led coalition.
British submarines have fired cruise missiles at Afghan targets, but the French jets will be the first non-US attack jets used in the campaign.
Richard said that the advance party would prepare the terrain for a contingent of between 200 and 250 ground troops who would turn the airbase into a logistics platform and protect the distribution of humanitarian aid.
The deployment came as controversy surrounded a similar British operation in which some 100 marine commandos secured the Bagram airbase north of Kabul, arriving Thursday accompanied by a party of US special forces.
London said the British troops would be followed by "thousands" more, but the Afghan opposition force which holds Bagram and the capital, the Northern Alliance, said they arrived with seeking prior permission.
"The British forces perhaps have an agreement with the UN but not with us," Northern Alliance Defense Minister Mohammad Quassim Fahim told AFP Saturday.
The Mirage 2000 fighter has been in service with the French air force in various versions since 1983.
The latest models are a two-seater ground attack aircraft capable of operating day and night and firing laser-guided smart bombs.
Richard did not say where the French aircraft would be based.
The nearest French airbase to Afghanistan is in Djibouti, but the US-led coalition has access to bases in Central Asia, Turkey, the Gulf and on the British Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia -- AFP
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