Ivory Coast air borne again after UN go-ahead

24th January 2005, Comments 0 comments

ABIDJAN, Jan 24 (AFP) - Ivory Coast's air force took to the skies again at the weekend following UN permission to repair aircraft wrecked in November by French forces after they killed French peacekeepers, witnesses and UN officials said Monday.

ABIDJAN, Jan 24 (AFP) - Ivory Coast's air force took to the skies again at the weekend following UN permission to repair aircraft wrecked in November by French forces after they killed French peacekeepers, witnesses and UN officials said Monday.

A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in the divided country, known as ONUCI, said a Russian-built Mi-24 helicopter gunship had made several test flights over the political capital of Yamoussoukro Saturday and Sunday, after UN officials had verified that it was not armed.

Witnesses contacted by telephone from Abidjan said the helicopter flew over several times at low altitude, and was greeted with enthusiasm by residents of the city.

A British Aerospace Strikemaster ground-attack aircraft also took off from Yamoussoukro on both days, ONUCI said. The UN and the parallel French peacekeeping contingent gave permission Saturday for the government of Ivory Coast to repair its air force, which was knocked out by French troops in November.

"It involves restoring them to flying condition, repairing the damaged planes, not rearming them," ONUCI spokesman Hamadoun Toure told AFP.

Four Russian-built Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers and a number of helicopters were destroyed on the ground by French forces on November 6, hours after air attacks killed nine French peacekeepers and a US aid worker.

The attacks came when President Laurent Gbagbo's government suddenly broke an 18-month truce with rebels holding the northern half of the country.

The French reprisals at the airports of Abidjan and Yamoussoukro were followed by massive anti-French demonstrations, forcing some 8,000 French and other Western civilians living in Ivory Coast to flee.

On November 15 the United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo on both sides in the conflict in the world's top cocoa-producer.

It was not clear Saturday how many of the aircraft would be repairable.

Two Sukhois were still on the end of the runway at Yamoussoukro since French forces disabled them.

Toure said they would have to be brought by road from Yamoussoukro 250 kilometres (150 miles) south to Abidjan, the economic capital.

The 4,000 men of France's Operation Unicorn have been keeping the two sides apart in Ivory Coast since shortly after a failed coup by renegade troops against Gbagbo in September 2002 resulted in the country's division.

The 6,000-strong ONUCI deployed in April last year to bolster a French-sponsored peace deal which has failed to calm tensions and reconcile the nation since it was signed two years ago.

Foreign military sources said that the wrecked planes had been flown at least partly by mercenary pilots from Belarus and Ukraine.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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