Paris plays down Gbagbo's role in air attack

14th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 13 (AFP)- Seeking to restore political dialogue, French officials Saturday declined to blame President Laurent Gbagbo for the upsurge in violence in the Ivory Coast and said they had no proof he gave orders for an aerial attack in which nine French soldiers and an American civilian were killed.

PARIS, Nov 13 (AFP)- Seeking to restore political dialogue, French officials Saturday declined to blame President Laurent Gbagbo for the upsurge in violence in the Ivory Coast and said they had no proof he gave orders for an aerial attack in which nine French soldiers and an American civilian were killed.

"Ivory Coast is and will continue to be a friendly country," said Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.

He added that the only way out of the crisis would be for "the men and women who hold the fate of their country in their hands get around the negotiating table."

"What other solution is there, apart from violence?" he said, adding it was up to Gbagbo and other national leaders to assume their responsibilities and resume dialogue.

He told Europe 1 radio that the French government does not know at what level the decision was taken to attack the French base at Bouake in the centre of the country, where the French soldiers and US aid worker were killed, but added that officials were convinced the attack was deliberate.

Earlier, Chief of Staff General Henri Bentegeat said he was not convinced the Ivorian president bore any responsibility for the attack. That would have been "insane," Bentegeat said.

The subsequent action by France in destroying much of the Ivory Coast's tiny Belarus-supplied air force touched off an angry anti-French backlash and led to an exodus of foreigners from the west African country as pro-Gbagbo mobs ran riot in the largest city, Abidjan.

Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has said France was convinced the air strike was deliberate but would conduct an inquiry to find out at what level the decision to attack was taken.

She said it could have been decided by a local commander or even the pilot, reported to have been a mercenary from Belarus.

"It was such an act of madness that it does not appear logical that the Ivorian head of state could have made such a decision," Alliot-Marie told France Info radio.

In disengaging itself from its arm lock with the Ivorian authorities, France is seeking a way of getting the derailed process of national reconciliation back on the track.

Ivory Coast has been locked in a low-level civil war since rebels launched a failed bid in September 2002 to oust Gbagbo.

In January last year, France brokered a peace pact in Marcoussis, near Paris, which was supposed to bring the rebels and political opposition into a unity government, and see Gbagbo cede some of his powers to a prime minister.

But that pact, too, sparked anti-French riots by the same hardline Gbagbo supporters responsible for the violence of the past week, and has still not been fully implemented, leaving Ivory Coast divided into the rebel north and pro-Gbagbo south.

A precarious calm has returned to Abidjan, but foreigners continued to flee following reports of machete attacks, rapes and pillaging by the mobs.

Barnier said a total of 4,000 foreigners had left Abidjan aboard aircraft flown in by France and other countries.

More than 4,100 expatriates from 63 countries had registered at the French military base near Abidjan for evacuation, a French military spokesman said.

Barnier said a "certain number" of women had been subjected to maltreatment - he avoided using the word rape - and that an investigation was under way to establish the extent and severity of the exactions.

Diplomats hope that France can help international efforts to restore peace, which include a summit meeting of the African Union in Abuja, Nigeria on Sunday.

Paris hopes the summit will devise a regional solution ahead of a vote in the UN Security Council on a French-proposed resolution that would impose an arms embargo and other sanctions on the Ivory Coast unless the situation improves within a month.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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