'French troops may begin Afghan withdrawal in 2011'

France and some allied Nato armies could begin to withdraw some of their forces from the conflict in Afghanistan as early as 2011, defence minister Herve Morin said on Thursday.

"There’s a fixed date for Nato in the framework of its new strategy, that's the start of 2011, because in 2011 we're going to transfer a whole series of districts to the Afghans," he told RTL radio.

"At that moment, there could be the first movements or first withdrawals of Allied forces from Afghanistan. In any case, that's the calendar set by Barack Obama, that in 2011 the first American troops could quit Afghanistan.

"And that's what a certain number of European countries have started to say," he explained, insisting that this has nothing to do with a threat issued against France yesterday by Islamist militant kingpin Osama bin Laden.

Asked whether the threat, contained in an audiotape broadcast by the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, was genuine, Morin said: "We're still in the course of trying to authenticate it. It's too soon to say.

"It's not impossible," he added. "All of our services and all of allies believe Osama bin Laden is alive."

In the tape, the apparent voice of Bin Laden warns that, by sending troops to fight in Afghanistan and by banning the Islamic full face veil on its own territory, France had
left itself open to retaliation.

He also said that last month's kidnap of five French nationals from the uranium mining town of Arlit in Niger by Al Qaeda's North African wing had been intended as a warning.

Two French journalists have been held hostage by suspected insurgents in Afghanistan for more than 300 days, but Bin Laden did not refer to them. Morin insisted that France's decision to begin looking towards the exit in Afghanistan from next year had "absolutely no link" to any threat.

"Radical Islamist movements always invoke our presence in Afghanistan, it is a frequent demand," he said, recalling that French troops have been on the ground since 2001 and have lost 50 of their comrades fighting there.

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