The defence ministry took the unprecedented measure of suspending General Henri Poncet, the former commander of French peacekeeping forces in Ivory Coast, after fresh information surfaced about the incident in May last year.
Announcing the suspension on Monday evening, the defence minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, said: "It is my duty, when there are breaches of the law or principles, to take appropriate measures. It is important for the image of our armed forces."
France sent troops to its former West African colony in September 2002 after a coup attempt against President Laurent Gbagbo during which rebel forces won control of the northern part of the country. General Poncet, 56, led operation Licorne (unicorn). French soldiers are still deployed there, serving alongside 6,500 UN peacekeepers.
The peacekeeping force described the 13 May incident at the time, saying that the local leader Mahé, who had been blocking roads and was sought for at least five murders and four rapes, had been stopped by a French military patrol but managed to escape. "At about 18.00, seeing he was surrounded, the individual opened fire in the direction of the Licorne force, who fired back in self-defence."
The statement said that Mahé was badly wounded when he was arrested, "and died of his wounds on the way to hospital in Man".
The Defence Ministry cast doubt on this account in a statement this week, saying that an inquiry had "already revealed serious breaches of the law, military regulations and orders ... In particular, it has been established that at the time no account was given of the facts which have now come to light."
French newspapers highlighted the extreme gravity of the measure invoked to censure General Poncet, who commanded operation Licorne from May 2004 to June this year. Under recently adopted military statutes, French soldiers can only be suspended for a "grave mistake". The general was suspended along with two other soldiers.Le Monde said that it was the first time since the Algerian war that the conduct of a French general has been officially censured. The French military presence has fuelled a crisis in relations with the government of President Gbagbo, who accused the French of siding with the rebel forces.
Last November, the Ivorian air force bombarded a French base at Bouaké, killing nine French soldiers. France responded by destroying the country's entire air force, sparking riots in Abidjan, which in turn prompted the departure of 8,000 French nationals.
Le Monde said yesterday: "The deliberate killings in Bouaké cannot justify the possible execution of a prisoner," although it went on to say that details of the charges against the general were not yet known. The Ivory Coast government said in a statement that General Poncet's suspension was a "purely French" matter. "With or without the suspension of General Poncet, President Gbagbo still wants to have the best relations with France."
But the pro-Gbagbo Courrier d'Abidjan said: "Poncet is paying for not having been able to overthrow the Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo in November 2004." The suspension also comes as the UN Security Council is expected to adopt a French-sponsored resolution on a political settlement, proposed by the African Union, which would keep Mr Gbagbo in power for 12 months, until elections can be held, while appointing a strong prime minister.