France offers its special forces to Western allies

War on terrorism: Strategy
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The Independent Online

France has become the latest Western power to pledge military support for the allied build-up around Afghanistan.

French naval vessels in the Indian Ocean will provide logistical aid to the American fleet, the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, announced yesterday.

France has also offered to allow American military aircraft to use its airspace and it stands ready to deploy its own special forces overseas if it is necessary.

But for the time being, it appears that French forces will not be directly involved in the widely anticipated US and British military action against the Taliban and the training camps of Osama bin Laden.

Mr Jospin, in an hour-long speech to the National Assembly, said the French government would expect to be fully consulted on targets and political aims before committing its forces to the front line of any US-led action.

With Pakistan seemingly ruled out as the main base for coalition ground forces because of the enormous internal pressure it would put on General Pervez Musharraf's government, Uzbekistan has become increasingly important for any military action.

Uzbekistan was the choice of the Red Army when it intervened in Afghanistan in 1979. The base at Tuzel, near the country's capital, Tashkent, can be used by up to 20,000 troops, and there are also strategically placed former Soviet bases at Termez and Dzakurgan.

Yesterday the Taliban leadership once again offered to negotiate over the US and British demands that Mr bin Laden should be handed over for the 11 September attacks, but President George Bush has stressed there is no room for negotiation and there was no question of showing the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and his colleagues the proof of Mr bin Laden's guilt that they had demanded.

By last night, more than 50,000 troops and almost 500 aircraft had been assembled by the US and Britain within striking distance of Afghanistan. But any military action is likely to be postponed until the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, return from their visits to the Middle East and Central Asia.

In the meantime the American aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk has unloaded a number of its fighter-bombers to accommodate special forces and helicopters, giving the allies the option of an airborne landing of combat troops from the sea. But the helicopters used in any such assault would have to be refuelled on the way.