French soldiers killed amid fear of new Ivory Coast coup

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The Independent Online

Two French soldiers have been killed by rebels in the Ivory Coast amid fears of a return of the civil war that was declared over last month.

Two French soldiers have been killed by rebels in the Ivory Coast amid fears of a return of the civil war that was declared over last month.

France called the killings "acts of cowardice" by "uncontrolled elements" and said yesterday that the attacks would not deter efforts to help keep peace in its former west African colony.

The attack on a French patrol boat occurred on Monday, hours after a coup attempt in the Ivory Coast was foiled by the arrest of 10 people in France.

French officers in the 4,000-strong peacekeeping force said that there was no reason to believe that the two incidents were connected. They said the French patrol had been attacked by a group of apparently drunk or drugged rebels from a group which has been absorbed into the Ivory Coast government since March.

A French army spokesman, Lt Col Jérome Sallé, said the French patrol and the rebels had had a heated exchange. As the French were leaving, the rebels opened fire, hitting two soldiers in the head and chest. Both soldiers, one of whom was a medic, died within minutes. A third soldier was hit in the foot.

The French patrol returned fire, killing one and wounding several others. These were the first deaths suffered by the French since their forces arrived in Ivory Coast six months ago. At least three rebel groups took control of the north and most of the economically vital, cocoa-producing west, early this year, in an attempt to displace President Laurent Gbagbo. They accused him of exploiting ethnic rivalries and allowing army and security forces to run riot since he won a disputed election in 2000.

Under an agreement brokered by the French in March, Mr Gbagbo remained in power but passed day-to-day control to a prime minister heading a coalition of government and rebel representatives.

Despite riots in Mr Gbagbo's favour in the principal city, Abidjan, the war was declared formally over in early July. Rumours abound however, of plans for another armed uprising. On Monday, France said that it had foiled a coup attempt by a dozen people. Those arrested included Ibrahim Coulibaly, a former senior Ivorian army officer implicated in a string of attempts to seize power since 1999.

A statement from the Ivorian presidency said that the arrests came at a time "when various sources are predicting an eventual resumption of hostilities in Ivory Coast and an imminent attack on ... Abidjan".

Officially, France sees the attack on its soldiers as an isolated act by disaffected former rebels. The defence minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, said the soldiers "were set upon in an irrational manner". She added: "This incident will not call into question our country's determination and commitment to actively contribute to the return of peace and the conclusion of the process of national reconciliation."