France's troops in Afghanistan are mainly deployed in Sarobi, Kabul and in northeastern Kapisa province [Reuters]

France will withdraw a quarter of its 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced during a visit to the country.

The French leader jetted in on Tuesday on a surprise visit to meet troops stationed in Sarobi district, northeast of Kabul, and to be briefed on progress against the Taliban by a French general.

"It's necessary to end the war. There was never a question of keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely," Sarkozy told journalists at a base near Kabul.

"We will withdraw a quarter of our troops, that's to say 1,000 men, by the end of 2012," he said.

Those remaining in Afghanistan will be concentrated in Kapisa, where they have been deployed since 2008.

The partial drawdown follows similar announcements by Britain and the United States, as Western leaders look to a final deadline of the end of 2014 to extract all combat troops from an increasingly deadly and costly conflict.

US President Barack Obama has announced that 33,000 US troops will leave by the end of next summer, effectively ending a military "surge" ordered into Afghanistan, principally the south, in late 2009.

Britain has said 500 of its soldiers will leave by the end of next year.
 
Belgium has announced some troops will also depart and Canada last week ended its nearly 3,000-strong combat mission in the southern province of Kandahar.

In Kabul, Sarkozy held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was in a sombre mood after receiving news shortly before the discussions that his younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai had been assassinated in Kandahar.

His visit comes days after that by new US defence chief Leon Panetta and a week after a visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

It was Sarkozy's third visit to Afghanistan since becoming president and it came a day after a 22-year-old French soldier was killed in a shooting blamed on "accidental fire" by a fellow French soldier.

France has lost 64 soldiers in the course of the war, according to figures compiled by the independent icasualties.org, including a 22-year-old killed by a fellow French soldier in a shooting incident on Monday blamed on "accidental fire".

'Poll boost'

The early pullout could give Sarkozy a boost ahead of the April 2012 presidential election, where he faces a tough battle from the leftwing opposition to win a second term.

An opinion poll after the US killing of former al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May showed more than half of French people support a withdrawal.

Commanders are now preparing to hand over seven NATO-held areas to Afghan control starting in mid-July, although there is widespread doubt over the ability of Afghan forces to take full responsibility for their own security.

Sarkozy said he shared Obama's belief that security had improved since bin Laden's death and that the handover to Afghan troops and police was proceeding smoothly.

Should the situation improve, the pullout of all Western combat troops in 2014 might be "brought forward", he said.

Source: Agencies