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 stationed.
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 Afghanistan.
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)