The French military officially handed over control of the key Afghan province of Kapisa to local forces on Wednesday.
The transfer is an important stage in France’s withdrawal from the war-torn country, which new President Francois Hollande has accelerated by ordering the return of troops by the end of 2012, a year earlier than previously planned.
France is the fifth largest contributor to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is due to pull out the vast majority of its 130,000 forces by the end of 2014.
Kapisa, an extremely unstable province where French troops have suffered numerous deadly attacks from the Taliban, lies to the northeast of Kabul close to the border with Pakistan’s lawless and insurgent-infested tribal areas.
In 2011, 24 French soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, all in Kapisa.
A ceremony in the provincial capital Mahmood-e-Raqi in the presence of French and Afghan military and officials, marked the handover of the province, which was announced by President Hamid Karzai in May.
Before his election in May, Hollande promised to speed up France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan so it would be completed by the end of 2012 — a year earlier than Paris initially planned and two years before the NATO deadline.
Wednesday’s ceremony “lets everyone see that Afghans are taking over their security. But it is above all a symbol and does not change the transition process”, a French security source told AFP.
France plans to withdraw 2,000 troops fighting with ISAF against the decade-long Taliban insurgency this year, leaving behind around 1,500 soldiers to train local forces and help organise the return of military equipment.
On Tuesday Pakistan agreed to reopen overland supply routes to Afghanistan from its Arabian Sea port of Karachi, seven months after closing them in protest at a US air raid that killed 24 of its soldiers.
The end of the blockade, which came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said sorry for the deaths, will greatly ease the process of withdrawing 10 years’ worth of military equipment from Afghanistan.