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French troops head for Afghanistan

ISTRES, France -- The first wave of an expected force of around 300 French troops has left for Afghanistan.

The troops will be part of an international operation to secure humanitarian aid for hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees.

The advance party of 58 French marines set out for the city of Mazar-e Sharif in north-eastern Afghanistan, on Friday.

They left the Istres air base in southern France onboard two C-160 Transall military transport planes which took off an hour apart for the Incirlik air base in Turkey. Military officials said the soldiers would continue from Incirlik on Saturday.

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They will be taken to the Karchi-Khanabad base in southern Uzbekistan on U.S. aircraft and are expected to reach Mazar-e Sharif by helicopter on Sunday or Monday.

Commanding officer Colonel Jean-Marc Salliard said the force would swell to "more than 300 soldiers" once the advance party had assessed conditions on the ground.

"This is a military mission in a humanitarian operation and is being organised in an international framework," Salliard told Reuters.

Another officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Bordachar, said one of the French tasks would be to protect mine-clearing teams that will operate around Mazar-e Sharif.

Some 100 British Royal Marine Commandos flew in to the Bagram air base north of the Afghan capital Kabul on Thursday, two days after Northern Alliance forces entered the city.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has put British troops on standby to secure aid routes and airports in Afghanistan.

Canada said on Thursday that the first contingent of a 1,000-strong rapid deployment force to assist in the aid effort would be ready to leave within hours of getting orders.

Italy is to provide a 2,700-strong force for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, including naval, air and ground units, parliament has been told.

Defence minister Antonio Martino said the majority of Italy's military contribution would be involved in logistical and defensive operations, but added that a limited number of the contingent might be involved in combat operations.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder has offered to send up to 3,900 troops to help in the war against terror.


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• French Government
• The French Foreign Legion

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