KABUL, Afghanistan – In the worst single-incident loss of life in at least three years for Western troops in Afghanistan, insurgents ambushed and killed 10 French soldiers and wounded 21 others in a sustained assault a short distance from the capital, military officials said Tuesday.
Separately, militants made an hours-long attempt to overrun a major U.S. base in southeastern Afghanistan, employing an untried and unnerving new tactic: at least a half-dozen suicide bombers blowing themselves up in succession. It was the second assault in two days against the base in the city of Khost near the Pakistan border. American troops fended off the assailants.
The attacks demonstrated the growing reach and power of the Taliban and other Islamic militants in Afghanistan, where this year is fast becoming the most lethal for combatants and civilians alike since the fall of the Taliban to U.S.-led forces in 2001.
The initial ambush on the French reconnaissance forces in the Sarobi district of Kabul province took place late Monday and continued into Tuesday, according to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. It said about 100 insurgents took part.
Attacks involving large numbers of militants mark a tactical departure for insurgents, who generally have eschewed large-scale frontal assaults in favor of smaller hit-and-run attacks that allow them to melt away when NATO troops use their superior firepower.
The high toll among the French forces occurred despite NATO rushing in reinforcements, including close air support and mobile medical units. The fighting took place about 30 miles east of Kabul.
Western military officials said a “large number” of insurgents were killed but declined to provide a more specific figure.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Defense Minister Herve Morin immediately boarded a plane for Afghanistan. Sarkozy planned to attend a service for the dead and visit the wounded, then meet with military commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, according to the presidential palace.
The death toll was the highest in a single incident for French soldiers in Afghanistan since they began to take part in the engagement in 2002. The contingent until now has suffered relatively light casualties in Afghanistan, compared with U.S., British and Canadian forces, who are deployed in the south and east.
Sarkozy drew domestic criticism from both the left and far right by his decision to send 700 additional French troops soon to Afghanistan, bringing the French contingent to more than 2,500.
An Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity said four of the French soldiers were taken prisoner and then executed.