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Row develops over killings by French troops

[Cote d'Ivoire] French armament.
Should the French troops have used less firepower? (IRIN)

The French government has admitted that its soldiers in Cote d'Ivoire killed "about 20" people in Abidjan last month when they fired into angry crowds of supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo.

The revelation, in a statement by the Defence Ministry on Tuesday, has raised questions within France and furher afield about whether the French troops used an excessive amount of force to control the situation during four days of anti-French rioting in the city.

The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) immediately called for a parliamentary investigation of the killings and the opposition Communist and Socialist parties joined forces to demand a commission of enquiry.

The FIDH also called for a separate inquiry into the Ivorian government's suspected role in instigating the violence. "The xenophobia shown by the the Young Patriots (pro-Gbagbo militants) with the complicity, possibly even at the instigation of certain Ivorian authorities could only have exacerbated these demonstrations of hatred," it said.

Corinne Dufka, the Cote d'Ivoire researcher of New York-based Human Rights Watch, told IRIN she was worried by what appeared to be the French troops' "disproportionate use of firepower," but had not yet been able to speak directly to eyewitnesses of the clashes.

The confrontations took place between 6 and 9 November near Abidjan airport and the Hotel Ivoire, a skyscraper luxury hotel situated only 200 metres from Gbagbo's official residence.

The hotel was occupied by French forces as they helped to evacuate nearly 9,000 foreigners, mainly French nationals, who had decided to flee the country following a fresh outbreak of fighting with rebels occupying the north of the country.

However many Ivorians feared that the French troops were positioning themselves to trap and isolate Gbagbo himself with the intention of backing a military coup against him.

Defending the decision of French troops to fire into the crowds, Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie noted on Wednesday that many pro-Gbagbo militants in the crowds had fired into the French lines.

"We ourselves suffered a very large number of injuries which shows that they (the French troops) were not confronted by unarmed civilians, but by people, whether they were Ivorian servicemen, Young Patriots or others, who were armed with kalashnikovs, air guns and hand guns," she told reporters

Defence Ministry officials told Agence France Presse that about 80 French servicemen were wounded in the clashes and were repatriated to France.

The violence in Abidjan erupted after French peacekeeping troops in Cote d'Ivoire destroyed two jet bombers and five attack helicopters on the ground to prevent them from continuing a two-day bombardment of rebel positions in northern Cote d'Ivoire. They moved into action swiftly after a bomb dropped on the rebel capital Bouake killed nine French peacekeepers who were based there.

The French government gave its first estimate of Ivorian casualties in the confrontations with French troops shortly before Canal Plus, a French television station aired a graphic documentary about the three days of violence. This included images of French helicopters firing canon rounds to try and clear crowds of anti-French demonstrators from two key bridges that cross the lagoon about which Abidjan is built.

"Firing like this upon civilians who are not carrying fire arms far exceeds what is required to maintain order and indeed the mandate of the French armed forces. We cannot remain silent about these events or minimise their importance," FIDH said.

The Ivorian government has claimed that 57 people were killed by French forces in Abidjan and more than 2,200 were injured.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that it assisted nearly 3,000 people in the city during seven days of disturbances in the city.

The row over France's alleged heavy handedness in its former colony blew up shortly before South African President Thabo Mbeki was due to return to Cote d'Ivoire to try and persuade Gbagbo and the rebels to resume peace talks on the basis of the January 2003 Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement

Mbeki, who was mandated to act as a mediator by the African Union (AU), was due to fly in to Abidjan on Thursday to meet Gbagbo, Prime Minister Seydou Diarra and leaders of the parliamentary opposition before heading for Bouake for talks with the rebel leader, Guillaume Soro.

The UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Cote d'Ivoire following last month's decision by Gbagbo to break an 18-month ceasefire in the civil war and launch an abortive attack on the north. It has threatened to impose further sanctions on the country unless he resumes peace talks with the rebels by 15 December.

This does not give Mbeki, a newcomer to international efforts to resolve the Ivorian conflict, much time to bring the two sides together.

The AU has called a summit meeting of its Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa to discuss the situation in Cote d'Ivoire on 10 December, five days before the UN ultimatum runs out.

The meeting will be chaired by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the 15-member AU committee.

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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