By Philippe Wozajer
KABUL, July 12 (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said during a visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday that France will pull out 1,000 troops from its mission there by the end of 2012, as it speeds up its withdrawal with the United States.
Sarkozy -- on an unannounced five-hour visit to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai and General David Petraeus and drop in on French troops in the region of Surobi -- said France's remaining soldiers would be based in Kapisa province.
France has some 4,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
"We will pull out a quarter of our contingent, which is to say 1,000 soldiers, between now and the end of 2012," Sarkozy said in a speech to French troops at a base near Kabul.
Sarkozy's visit followed a trip by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the weekend and comes after the United States and France said in June that they would pull soldiers out earlier than expected from the nearly decade-old military campaign against Taliban insurgents.
French soldiers have been involved in the U.S.- and NATO-led Afghanistan operation since 2001 and France has lost 64 soldiers from its 4,000-strong contingent, including a soldier killed on Monday by an accidental shot from his own camp in Kapisa.
The early pullout could give Sarkozy a boost ahead of the April 2012 presidential election, where he faces a tough battle from the leftwing opposition to win a second term.
An opinion poll after the U.S. killing of former al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May showed more than half of French people support a withdrawal.
Sarkozy's speech to French soldiers came two days before France's "Bastille Day" national day, which marks the start of the 1789 revolution and will this year honour troops on foreign missions.
Sarkozy's visit also comes shortly after the surprise release of two French TV journalists who had been held hostage by the Taliban for a year and a half in Afghanistan and who were greeted as heros on their return to France at the end of June. (Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry in Paris; Writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Michael Roddy; )
Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.
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