| SAINT-DENIS DE LA REUNION, France
SAINT-DENIS DE LA REUNION, France, Oct 16 (Reuters) -
France's defence minister reacted with disbelief on Friday to
the idea that an army might pay Taliban insurgents not to
attack, after a British newspaper accused Italy of the practice.
Britain's Times said on Thursday that Italy's secret service
had paid tens of thousands of dollars to Taliban commanders and
local warlords to keep safe the area where Italian troops were
It said that French soldiers, knowing nothing of the
payments and carrying little ammunition in the belief they were
in a calm area, had been surprised by an insurgent ambush in
August 2008 that killed 10 soldiers.
The Italian government has furiously rejected the report and
French officials have denied any knowledge of such payments.
Speaking to reporters on a tour of French bases in the
Indian Ocean, Defence Minister Herve Morin appeared incredulous
and denied a suggestion that paying off the Taliban was common
practice in Afghanistan.
"I have no reason to question the word of the Italian
government," he said, adding: "The French army would never take
part in such practices," he said.
"Paying the Taliban for peace goes against the principles of
honour on which an army is founded," he said.
"The very idea that an army could pay the people it is meant
to fight would obviously be a very bad sign. It would be a sign
that we were not able to carry out our mission," he added.
The controversy comes at a sensitive moment, with western
armies facing insurgent violence and mounting casualties in
Supporters of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are
planning a protest on Friday in front of the Times headquarters.
On Friday, the Times published a second report, quoting a
Taliban commander and two senior Afghan officials who it said
confirmed the initial story.
Italy's defence minister has called the Times report
"garbage" and is preparing a lawsuit against the newspaper.
The United States is considering sending up to 40,000
additional troops and has urged its NATO allies to bolster their
forces but reaction has been less than enthusiastic.
Italy and France, two of the largest European contributors
to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, have each sent around
three thousand solders.
France will not send any more soldiers to Afghanistan,
President Nicolas Sarkozy told Le Figaro newspaper in an
interview published on Friday. Italy has played down
expectations it would contribute more manpower.
Morin said investment in construction projects, schools and
infrastructure would encourage Afghans themselves to put
pressure on the Taliban.
"Victory cannot merely be military," he said.
(Writing by Sophie Taylor)