African troops parade in Paris rainstorm

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

Cameroonian soldiers in red uniforms and capes and Congolese troops in brown headscarves were among those pounding the cobbles of the Champs Elysees avenue in the Bastille Day parade, with rifles and bayonets at their shoulders.

Twelve African heads of state were guests of honour at the annual display of military power on France's national holiday, which this year drew criticism from rights groups that accuse some African leaders and armies of atrocities.

Rain clouds opened on the parade as it unfolded under the gaze of President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, the former supermodel 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 war crimes and other human rights violations in various African countries.

Protestors denounced "Francafrique" -- a term referring to a perceived tradition of shady official and business ties between France and its former colonies, 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.

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".

"It would be no small paradox that during a celebration of the values of the Republic, these values should be flouted by the presence of torturers, dictators and other predators of human rights, and that instead of pursuing them, France honours them," it said in a letter to Sarkozy.

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 greeted soldiers wounded in countries such as Afghanistan, where 45 French troops have died since 2002 while serving in a NATO-led force. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy greeted the families of soldiers killed in combat.

The presidential garden party that traditionally follows the parade was cancelled this year as part of Sarkozy's efforts to trim government spending amid broader belt-tightening measures.

© 2010 AFP

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