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France threatens early pullout after Afghan soldier kills four

France on Friday threatened to withdraw its troops early from Afghanistan after an Afghan soldier killed four French troops and wounded 15 in a setback for the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to build a national army and allow foreign troops to go home.

The deadly shooting -- the second against French forces in a month -- is the latest in a rising number of attacks in which Afghan security forces or infiltrators have turned their guns on coalition forces.

It came during an especially deadly 24 hours for the international coalition, with six U.S. Marines killed in a helicopter crash Thursday night in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

The Taliban said it shot down the helicopter, but NATO said no enemy activity was reported in the area at the time.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces a potentially tough re-election campaign this spring, reacted swiftly to the killing of the French troops, who were unarmed when they were shot during a physical training exercise. He ordered French forces to stop training Afghan troops and suspended joint patrols.

"The French army is not in Afghanistan so that Afghan soldiers can shoot at them," Sarkozy said in Paris. "From now on, all the operations of training and combat help by the French army are suspended."

If security for the French troops is not restored, "the question of an early withdrawal of the French army would arise," he added.

France's threat comes at a time when the coalition is trying to reassure Afghanistan that it is not rushing to leave, that it will continue to develop the nation's struggling security force and that it will help the government negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban to end the decade-long war.

If France suspends training operations indefinitely or withdraws sooner, it would weaken the coalition and could prompt more nations to pull their troops.

Through training of Afghan police and soldiers, the coalition hopes to wrap up its combat mission at the end of 2014 when foreign forces are scheduled to have gone home or moved into support roles.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "I am in great sympathy with what happened to the French soldiers. It was terrible. And I can certainly appreciate the strong feelings that are being expressed."

"We are in close contact with our French colleagues, and we have no reason to believe that France will do anything other than continue to be part of the very carefully considered transition process as we look at our exit," she added.

France is the fourth-largest force in the coalition, with 3,600 troops in Afghanistan. Six hundred are slated to leave this year and the rest by the end of 2014.

So far, 82 French troops have been killed, including two members of the French Foreign Legion who were shot and killed by an Afghan soldier on Dec. 29.

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