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France Defends Actions in Ivory Coast Clashes


France is defending itself against accusations coming from Ivory Coast that it overstepped its role as a peacekeeping force during clashes earlier this month involving the Ivorian army, the French rapid reaction force and protesters.

Lawyers for Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo say a planned lawsuit against France at the Hague-based International Court of Justice is based on what they view as France's illegal destruction of Ivorian military aircraft earlier this month.

French President Jacques Chirac ordered those attacks after an Ivorian military raid in the rebel-held north killed nine French soldiers.

Ivorian lawyers say this was in violation of accords that allowed French soldiers to become a rapid reaction force to help end the civil war in the world's leading cocoa producer.

The destruction of the planes prompted massive anti-French looting in the commercial capital, Abidjan, as well as clashes involving protesters, the Ivorian army and the French army.

During the upheaval, dozens of people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. Two other cases brought forward by Ivorian civilian victims are pending in courts in Abidjan and Paris.

A supporter of President Gbagbo who has worked on all three cases, Genevieve Bro Grebe, says she believes France was preparing a coup. "The complaint is about what France does in Cote d'Ivoire," she said. "People without weapons have been killed. I mean Jacques Chirac has destroyed all our planes. The international community should know what is going on in Cote d'Ivoire, I mean the truth."

France has denied trying to topple President Gbagbo, saying it acted to secure French citizens in the south and its soldiers throughout the divided country. More than 4,000 French troops are helping 6,000 United Nations peacekeepers maintain a cease-fire between the Ivorian army and rebels.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie says she doesn't believe the case at The Hague has any legal grounds, but she now admits French forces did open fire on hostile crowds.

Speaking on French radio late Sunday, the French defense minister said French forces made "full use of their weapons" on angry protesters who were blocking French armored vehicles in several instances. But she said, those protesters were armed not only with machetes, but also pistols and AK-47s.

On the first night of the protests in Abidjan, November 6, supporters of Mr. Gbagbo were caught in heavy gunfire as French helicopters tried to prevent people from crossing the city's two main bridges, while also receiving fire from Ivorian military positions. Several days later, there was an incident in which French forces fired into a crowd gathering around the city's main hotel, while a convoy of armored vehicles tried to return to their base.

A new DVD called The Six Day War of France Against Ivory Coast is selling briskly in local markets for $10. The DVD's producer, Gome Gnohite Hilaire, says France has "worn out its welcome" in its former colonies.

"We have many people who have been killed, and I want the world to know about it," said Mr. Hilaire. "Now I'm very glad to see the impact of this movie in Cote d'Ivoire, in Africa and in the world."

Airport authorities in Burkina Faso, where a summit of French-speaking nations recently took place, confiscated a pile of these DVDs from the Ivorian delegation when it arrived, prompting it to boycott the proceedings.

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