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French peacekeepers clash with government troops

Country Map - Cote d'lvoire
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UN peacekeepers sought for divided Cote d'Ivoire (IRIN-West Africa)

French peacekeepers in Cote d'Ivoire clashed with a unit of about 100 Ivorian government troops that entered the demilitarised zone between government and rebel-held areas of the country on Sunday, damaging an Ivorian tank and injuring several Ivorian government soldiers, a well-informed military source said.

The Ivorian soldiers were accompanying a group of 200 civilian supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo who had stated their intention to march from the town of Mbahiakro, close to the frontline, into rebel territory to "liberate" the rebel capital Bouake 92 km away, he added.

Following the clash, a group of Ivorian soldiers interrupted state radio and television programmes on Sunday night to demand the sacking of Ivorian military chief of staff General Mathias Doue, who is widely regarded as a moderate who favours reconciliation with the rebels. They also demanded the departure of French troops from the frontline.

An unidentified soldier wearing a red beret appeared on television saying the group were not trying to depose Gbagbo. "This is not coup d'etat. This is not a rebellion. We are loyalists," he said.

But the unidentified soldier demanded that Gbagbo sack Doue within 48 hours and order the French to abandon the buffer zone they established after civil war broke out in this West African country last year within the same timeframe. "We were stopped by the French with the complicity of our own superiors," he said.

Gbagbo, Doue and the commander of the 4,000 French peacekeeping troops in Cote d'Ivoire flew by helicopter to Mbahiakro to try and defuse the situation.

State television later showed Gbagbo making a speech in the town, ordering his soldiers to hold firm. The president demanded that rebel forces occupying the north of the country set a firm date for the demobilisation and disarmament of their forces under the terms of a peace agreement signed in January. "I want a date for liberation," Gbagbo said. "I want a date for demobilisation and a date for disarmament."

State television said in its main evening news programme that Doue had authorised the French peacekeepers to open fire on his own troops. It said six Ivorian soldiers were injured in the clashes, two of them seriously.

Presidential spokesman Alain Toussaint declined to comment on the demand for Doue's removal and the withdrawal of French peacekeepers broadcast earlier in the evening, saying it was an army matter. Toussaint referred inquiries to the army spokesman who was not immediately available for comment.

Diplomatic sources said there had been long-standing tension between Doue, who was regarded as a political moderate, and Gbagbo, who has consistently taken a hard line against the rebels, demanding that they disarm, while resisting the full implementation of the French-brokered peace agreement.

The rebels, who are officially known as "The New Forces" pulled out of a broad-based government of national reconciliation on 23 September, protesting that Gbagbo was refusing to delegate effective power to its ministers. Tension between the two sides has been increasing since then, although a ceasefire has held firm along the frontline since April.

Rebel officials told an IRIN correspondent in the northern city of Korhogo that Doue had for some time been expressing disatisfaction with Gbagbo's handling of the peace process and had been expected to lead a coup against him in the near future.

Rebel leaders were meeting in Korhogo as events unfolded in the government-held south. The rebel military commander, Colonel Soumaila Bakayoko, went into crisis talks with his top aides after the group of soldiers demanded Doue's removal and the withdrawal of French peacekeepers on state television.

The military source in Abidjan told IRIN that the group of hardline Gbagbo supporters moved out of Mbahiakro into the demilitarised zone at about 2am on Sunday morning accompanied by about 100 Ivorian government troops who followed behind them in armoured cars, buses and light trucks.

After managing to circumvent the first French checkpoint, they were subsequently halted by French forces at the town of Alangouassou, 58 km from Bouake, he added. Shortly before mid-day French forces opened fire over the heads of the marchers as they tried to continue their advance. This led to an exchange of fire with Ivorian government troops during which one Ivorian light tank was damaged, the source said.

The military source said the movement of Ivorian government troops into the demilitarised zone near the frontline appeared to have taken staff at army headquarters in Abidjan by surprise. "These are obviously some sort of extreme elements in the FANCI (government army) which have taken their own initiative," he said.

The capital Abidjan was quiet, but tense on Sunday night. Many bars and restaurants closed early as people hurried home.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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