France sends more troops to Ivory Coast in retaliation for government-ordered killings

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The Independent Online

France yesterday sent a further 300 troops to bolster a retaliation operation against the government of Ivory Coast after nine of its soldiers were killed in an air raid ordered by the West African country's president, Laurent Gbagbo.

France yesterday sent a further 300 troops to bolster a retaliation operation against the government of Ivory Coast after nine of its soldiers were killed in an air raid ordered by the West African country's president, Laurent Gbagbo.

The French defence minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, said France's 6,000 peacekeepers were being reinforced by 300 soldiers from a base at Libreville, Gabon, because she held Mr Gbagbo directly responsible for Saturday's raids which also left 23 peacekeepers injured.

The attack on the French presence followed several days of government-ordered raids on areas controlled by rebels in the north of the country. Mr Gbagbo maintains that France, the former colonial power, favours the rebels - also known as the New Forces - and that it wants to undermine his position before elections next year.

France's retaliation, which by yesterday had resulted in all of the Ivorian government's air power being grounded, will be bolstered today with the arrival of 90 gendarmes and three airbuses, including one equipped as a hospital. But the military clampdown by France, whose relationship with the government of its former colony is not dissimilar to Britain's strained links with Zimbabwe, is risky.

Up to 16,000 French citizens are resident in Ivory Coast. Yesterday hundreds of them were hiding in the homes of Ivorian friends as pro-government youth mobs, known as Young Patriots, ran riot through the suburbs of the commercial capital, Abidjan, chanting anti-French slogans and attacking businesses and schools with links to France.

The heightened tension in Ivory Coast, which is the world's leading cocoa producer and maintained cordial links with France until a military coup in December 1999, follows nearly two years of peace negotiations both in France and through the African Union (AU). Yesterday the AU mandated South African president Thabo Mbeki to attempt a new reconciliation effort for Ivory Coast.

Mr Gbagbo, who came to power in 2002 but has not been elected, began openly stating his hostility to France after the January 2003 Marcoussis peace conference, held near Paris. The talks attempted to find common ground between Mr Gbagbo, who is from the south of Ivory Coast, and rebel leaders from the north of the country who have links with Burkina Faso's dictator Blaise Compaoré. The Marcoussis accords, at which France claims Mr Gbagbo agreed to admit rebel ministers to his government, led to the deployment of French peacekeepers who were later bolstered by a United Nations force. Mr Gbagbo denies he agreed to work with New Forces representatives and, even though he allowed three of them into the cabinet last year, they resigned claiming they had been sidelined.

In addition to arming Ivorian rebels, Mr Compaoré also supports Mr Gbagbo's principal challenger, Alassane Ouattara, who was prime minister in the early 1990s.

Mr Gbagbo, who has played a strongly nationalistic card, claims that Mr Ouattara is in fact Burkinabe and should not be allowed to stand in elections planned for 2005.

The Marcoussis accord calls for the revision of article 35 of the Ivorian constitution, under which a candidate must prove he is a second-generation national on both his mother's and father's side. Mr Ouattara was born in Upper Volta, the colonial name of Burkina Faso.

The former French socialist government was close to Mr Gbagbo, but he has found himself sidelined in President Jacques Chirac's attentions. Mr Ouattara, on the other hand, is viewed with more sympathy in Paris because he served as prime minister under pro-French former president Henri Konan Bédié.

Last night, despite sending reinforcements, it appeared that France would be content to punish and disable the Ivorian military, and not that it was engaged in an operation to remove Mr Gbagbo from power.

Having initiated the Marcoussis talks and supported AU efforts towards peace in Ivory Coast, France could not be seen to be taking the military option to oust Mr Gbagbo. Furthermore, a sustained French military operation would endanger thousands of French civilians, who are too numerous to be evacuated.

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