Kabul: The first 200 French soldiers left Afghanistan on Wednesday, kickstarting troop withdrawals announced three months ago by Paris as part of NATO plans to wind down
its combat mission by 2014.

In total, a quarter of France's current troop deployment is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan before the end of 2012, ahead of a full drawdown of NATO's combat mission
scheduled for 2014.

France has some 4,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, mostly in the district of Surobi and in the neighbouring province of Kapisa, part of the NATO-led force of 130,000 foreign troops, two-thirds of whom are Americans.

The departures are in line with a national transition process that began in seven areas of the country in July, meant to hand responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

"The United States, the leaders of this coalition, proceeded with a withdrawal, we are proceeding with a proportionate withdrawal," said French Defence Minister Gerard
Longuet in Paris.

The United States, Britain and Belgium have also announced partial withdrawals, with some US troops already heading home this summer as Western voters tire of more than a decade at war against a strong Taliban insurgency.

The contingent took off in a French military A340 jet from Kabul airport at around 5:00 pm (1230 GMT), one reporter said.

The speed of the French withdrawal surprised some military officials, but comes as French President Nicolas Sarkozy gears up for a presidential election next year and after a particularly deadly summer for the troops.

There are also general concerns within Afghanistan over the ability of Afghan security forces to protect the country, given complaints that they are over-reliant on NATO, fail to take initiative and suffer retention problems.

France lost 17 soldiers between June 1 and September 7, bringing to 75 the number killed as part of military operations in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion drove the Taliban from power.

On July 13, the day after Sarkozy visited Afghanistan to announce the troop withdrawals, five French soldiers died in a suicide strike, the deadliest attack for France in Afghanistan
since an ambush killed 10 soldiers in 2008.

Another French soldier died the following day, leading Paris to announce a safety review. As a result, the number of operations on the ground has slowed, say soldiers in Afghanistan.

"The losses of the French army in July and August caused a slowdown of operations. We're less prominent, less aggressive, take less risks," said Lieutenant Christopher, who could not
give his last name in line with policy.

"We just do what we're told. If they say you go out less, we go out less," he said, struggling to conceal a hint of bitterness.


(Agencies)