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More French Troops Arrive in Ivory Coast - 2002-12-28

A transport ship carrying some 300 French soldiers has landed in Ivory Coast to shore up a tattered cease-fire. The troops arrived a day after rebel fighters tried to ambush a French military patrol in the west of the country.

French sailors use whistles and radios to communicate as they back the 168-meter transport ship into the harbor. They lower a massive gate down onto the dock, and soldiers on board begin unloading scores of heavy trucks.

Around the side of the ship, a massive elevator lifts amphibious light armored vehicles down to dock level from the upper decks. Deep inside the ship, two kinds of helicopters await re-assembly so they can be flown off to the nearby French military base.

Once the unloading has begun, a distant bugle sounds to officially announce the vessel's arrival.

The name of the ship is Foudre. It means thunderbolt or lightning. It was a 10-day journey to Abidjan from Toulon, where the Foudre was loaded. It arrived carrying roughly 300 French soldiers and about 100 vehicles, half of them armored.

Most of them are destined to patrol the cease-fire line that essentially splits Ivory Coast in two. The northern zone and part of the west are controlled by rebel factions, the south by government troops.

In between, trying to keep the two sides apart, are the French. These 300 reinforcements move the total French military presence in Ivory Coast closer to the eventual goal of 2,500 troops. "You have two big regiments here," said French military spokesman First Lieutenant Benoit Suire. "You have the eighth paratrooper regiment, and the second Foreign Legion paratrooper regiment."

The regular paratroopers, he said, wear red berets. The foreign legionnaires wear green. The other troops on board the Foure, in blue berets, are infantry and cavalry soldiers. Many of them have already served in French military operations around the world, including the Balkans and elsewhere in Africa.

Soldiers carry their bags down the gangplank and prepare to head off for the military base. Nobody knows how long the French troops will stay in Ivory Coast. The head of the French army has said it could be years if necessary.

The reinforcements arrived a day after French troops in western Ivory Coast clashed with rebels for the second time in less than a week. A French military spokesman says rebels tried to ambush a French patrol near the town of Duekoue, and the French soldiers fired back in self defense.

Earlier in the week, the three rebel factions got together to issue a statement threatening all out war if the French attack any rebel positions.

France has said it intends to remain neutral in the war in its former colony. But the French troops have also been ordered to shoot anyone seen violating the cease-fire, or impeding their ability to enforce it.