French deploying troops, says Nigeria

PARIS (Reuter) - France yesterday denied Nigerian accusations that French soldiers were deployed in the Bakassi peninsula to command Cameroonian forces in an oil-rich border region claimed by the two African states.

The Nigerian army said on Monday it had confirmation that French troops were used at East Atabong and Isengele, part of the disputed peninsula. 'They are now said to be directing operations for the Cameroonians in these areas,' the Nigerian statement said.

In Paris a Foreign Ministry spokesman said: 'I deny the Nigerian reports that French military personnel are deployed in the Bakassi peninsula or at Insengele, to the north.' He said France had 50 military advisers permanently based in Cameroon and 15 paratroopers and two Puma attack helicopters sent on 27 February at the request of the government of the Cameroon.

In Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, a government spokesman also denied that French troops were in Bakassi and called the Nigerian charges psychological warfare.

He said: 'The French are not at the front. The French are still in reserve . . . in reserve of the Cameroonian defence. But the French are our allies and we reserve the right to call on them when we deem it necessary.'

Nigeria has accused France of aggravating its dispute with Cameroon and says the French deployment is in fact much larger. 'The heavy military involvement of France in the Nigeria-Cameroon dispute will only reinforce the resolve of Nigerians to get back what belongs to them,' the defence spokesman, Brigadier-General Fred Chijuka, said on Monday.

Nigeria sent troops to Bakassi on 30 December after allegations of harassment by Cameroonian gendarmes of the inhabitants, who Nigeria says are mostly its nationals. Cameroonian and Nigerian troops clashed on 18 February.

The Nigerian ruler, General Sani Abacha, and Paul Biya, President of Cameroon, are due to meet in the northern Nigerian town of Maiduguri to discuss the border row.

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