African troops parade in Paris amid rainstorm, rights row

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Troops from 13 African nations marched in Paris Wednesday, marking half a century of independence from France as part of a rain-soaked Bastille Day parade heavily criticised by human rights groups.

The colourful display on the Champs Elysees avenue came as rights groups accused some African leaders and armies of war crimes and of perceived shady ties between France and some of its former colonies.

Mauritanian troops in white and blue robes and Central Africans in red were among those pounding the cobbles in central Paris on France's national holiday, with rifles and bayonets at their shoulders.

Twelve African heads of state were guests of honour at the annual display of military power.

Rain clouds opened on the parade as it unfolded under the gaze of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, the former supermodel and singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and the African leaders and military officers.

"It is a blood tie that we are celebrating, the tie born of African troops' contribution to the defence and liberation of France," Sarkozy said, honouring Africans who fought for France in the world wars.

On the eve of the parade, hundreds of people joined a demonstration in eastern Paris called by a grouping of 70 rights associations complaining of human rights violations in various African countries.

Protestors denounced "Francafrique" -- the term for a perceived tradition of shady official and business ties between France and its former colonies, which gained independence in 1960, some of which are dictatorships.

Sarkozy insisted the event was not about colonial "nostalgia", in an address to the African leaders at a lunch on Tuesday.

"I know very well the notion of privileged and special relations, this flood of suspicions and fantasies, but the time has come to face up to it together, without inhibitions and without looking back," he said.

Benin President Boni Yayi welcomed France's decision Tuesday to award African veterans who fought for France the same pension as their French comrades.

"It is fortunate that France has finally remembered our veterans, because at the time, during the wars, bullets did not distinguish between white skin and black skin," he said Wednesday.

Protestors criticised the decision to invite countries such as Niger, where a military junta seized power in a coup five months ago and where French nuclear energy giant Areva has lucrative uranium mining contracts.

The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said the visiting delegations "may contain people responsible for grave human rights violations".

French Defence Minister Herve Morin said there was "no indication" that there were war criminals among Sarkozy's guests.

"These are countries with whom we have relations, partnerships. I don't see the sense in putting ourselves on trial over these questions," he said on radio station France Info.

After fighter jets flew overhead, the African contingents passed, headed by an all-female unit from Benin, giving way to French troops, firemen, police, armoured vehicles and marching bands, their shirts drenched by the rain.

The heads of state from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Chad and Togo sat watching from the official stand.

Ivory Coast, gripped by long-term political stalemate following a 2002 coup attempt, was represented by a government minister but did not take part in the march-past. Forces from Madagascar also joined the parade.

Sarkozy afterwards greeted soldiers wounded on service in countries including Afghanistan, where 45 French troops have died since 2002 while serving in a NATO-led force.

Bruni-Sarkozy greeted the families of soldiers killed in combat. On Tuesday she had hosted the wives of the African leaders at the presidential palace and discussed issues such as the scourge of AIDS on the continent.

Sarkozy held a lunch afterwards for guests rewarded as civil achievers, but the presidential garden party that traditionally follows the parade was cancelled as part of Sarkozy's efforts to trim government spending.

Stormy weather caused Bastille Day fireworks displays to be cancelled in the eastern city of Dijon and central Clermont-Ferrand.

But in the French capital spectacular fireworks at the Eiffel Tower late Wednesday night marked the end of the Bastille Day celebrations that drew 300,000 people to the Paris landmark, according to the police.

© 2010 AFP

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