By FISNIK ABRASHI, Associated Press Writer
Hundreds of French troops have deployed to train and mentor Afghan security forces in a key southern province wracked by the Taliban-led insurgency, NATO said Thursday.
Meanwhile, 22 Taliban fighters and seven policemen were killed elsewhere in the country, authorities said.
The French troops traveled in 94 vehicles from Kandahar to Uruzgan province in what was one of the largest ground military convoys in southern Afghanistan in years, the military alliance said in a statement.
NATO did not provide the exact number of troops deployed, and officials would not specify whether they were being relocated from elsewhere in Afghanistan or were new to the country.
But France has about 1,500 troops in Afghanistan, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to send 700 more soldiers by the end of the year to help NATO-led forces.
The Taliban, who are resurgent in Afghanistan nearly seven years after being ousted from power in a U.S.-led invasion, have frequently clashed with foreign and Afghan troops in Uruzgan.
Among the Taliban whose deaths were announced Thursday were eight killed in Kandahar province, 11 killed in Helmand province and three in Ghazni province. The seven policemen died in Helmand, officials said.
Southern Afghanistan is the center of the Taliban-led insurgency that this year has claimed more than 2,800 lives, according to an Associated Press tally of figures provided by Afghan and Western officials.
NATO commanders and leaders have repeatedly requested more trainers for the fledgling Afghan National Army and police, which are at the center of their counterinsurgency strategy. The deployed French unit will train and support Afghan army infantry battalions, the alliance said.
Troops that conduct training of the Afghan forces form the core of an alliance strategy that envisages embedding small teams of foreign soldiers with Afghan troops.
The alliance commanders have also complained over the years that not all NATO nations are ready to join the fight against the resurgent Taliban.
The number of insurgent attacks in Afghanistan has gone up by more than 50 percent in the first half of this year, compared to the same period last year.
There are some 53,000 NATO-led troops from 27 countries serving in Afghanistan. Overall, there are 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 14,000 serving with the NATO forces and another 18,000 conducting training and counterinsurgency.
There is a shortfall of about 2,300 foreign troops to meet the training needs, said Lt. Col. Christian Kubik, a spokesman for the U.S. troops who train Afghan police and soldiers.
"If we increase the pace of training we are going to need more," Kubik said.
The Afghan National Army is scheduled to reach a strength of 70,000 soldiers by the end of this year, with an ultimate goal of 80,000 soldiers. Those numbers will likely go up to 120,000 by 2011, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.
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