A rebel military commander in Cote d'Ivoire has been sentenced to life imprisonment by a government military court for leading an attack on the town of Gohitifla in the supposedly demilitarised buffer zone between government and rebel forces last year.
Pinon Kone, a former paramilitary gendarme, and 21 other rebel gunmen who joined him in the operation in June last year, were sentenced by the court martial in Abidjan on Monday.
Kone's accomplices received jail terms ranging from five to 20 years in a rare court case against politically motivated acts of armed aggression in this war-torn country.
The group was arrested by French peacekeeping troops patrolling the buffer zone between the rebel-held north and government-controlled south of Cote d'Ivoire and was turned over to the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.
Five soldiers of Gbagbo's army were killed in the attack on Gohitifla, a small town in central Cote d'Ivoire, 400 km northwest of the capital Abidjan.
The court found Kone guilty of nine counts, including threatening state security, murder, rebellion and theft.
His second-in-command Dramane Kone was sentenced to 20 years behind bars. The others were handed terms of five to 17 years in jail.
“I attacked Gohitafla because I wanted to then capture Mama, the head of state’s village, to make my voice heard,” Pinon Kone, the leader of the rebel band, said in court.
The former gendarme said he had wanted to make a public protest against statements by Charles Ble Goude, the leader of a militant pro-Gbagbo youth movement, that a 2003 peace accord between the two sides was dead.
The harsh treatment meted out to Pinon Kone and his men, who appeared to have only a loose affiliation to the New Forces rebel movement, contrasted with the government's failure to prosecute 87 pro-government militia fighters who were arrested by UN peacekeepers after they attacked the rebel frontline town of Logouale in western Cote d'Ivoire on 28 February this year.
A few days after the clash, which resulted in the death of at least 15 people, the United Nations handed over these men to the Ivorian government in the nearby town of Guiglo, where they were immediately released and feted as heros.
It had refused to hand them over to the rebel authorities.
Asked to comment on the fate of Kone and his men, New Forces spokesman Sidiki Konate told IRIN: “We have taken note. If we find FANCI (National Armed Forces of Cote d’Ivoire) men here we will know what to do next time.”