November 17, 2010 / 10:27 AM / 9 years ago

New French defence minister says Afghanistan a trap

* French defence minister sets line on Afghanistan

* Says to study how to draw down troops at NATO summit

PARIS, Nov 17 (Reuters) - The war in Afghanistan is a trap for all parties involved and France will discuss how to draw down its troop presence at a NATO summit this week, the newly-appointed defence minister said on Wednesday.

“Afghanistan is, I would say, a trap for all the parties involved there,” said Alain Juppe, a former prime minister who was appointed defence minister on Sunday in a reshuffle of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet.

Juppe’s remark added weight to expectations that France will start bringing home troops based in Afghanistan next year and withdraw from the country entirely ahead of a 2012 presidential election.

France has about 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, although the U.S.-led war has been largely unpopular at home. At least 50 French soldiers in Afghanistan have been killed since 2001.

Former defence minister Herve Morin had said France would try to hand over responsibility in one of the two zones it controls there to Afghan forces next year.

Juppe told Europe 1 radio France was trying to hand over fighting duties “bit by bit” and would study how the zones under French control could be transferred to Afghan forces at a NATO summit in Lisbon on Friday and Saturday.

“This will allow us to consider, according to a calendar which is not fixed, how to adapt our troops on the ground,” Juppe said. “We will have to leave Afghanistan one day, but we will do it when the conditions are there for the Afghan authorities to have the situation in hand.”

France’s presence in Afghanistan is seen as a factor contributing to a heightened state of vigilance in France against a possible attack by militants.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden targeted France for the first time in a speech last month, endorsing the capture of five French nationals by the group’s North African wing.

Asked on Wednesday if the captives, employees of French energy firm Areva who were working in Niger, were alive, Juppe said: “At the moment we have every reason to believe so.”

He said the French government was in contact with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group which has claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking. (Reporting by Vicky Buffery and Nick Vinocur; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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