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Ivory Coast Massacre Aquittals Seen As Show Trial - 2001-08-03

A military court in Ivory Coast has acquitted eight paramilitary police officers who were charged with murder following the massacre of almost 60 men last year. The trial has been viewed with skepticism by critics who accuse the government of staging the proceedings to present a positive image.

Cheers broke out among friends of the police officers who packed the courtroom at Abidjan's Agban police camp as military Judge Deli Sepleu read the not guilty verdict.

The eight were charged with murder following the discovery of 57 bodies in a forest outside Abidjan in October. The bodies were those of mostly young men, believed to be supporters of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, who was excluded from running for the presidency last year.

Witnesses said paramilitary police rounded up the men, most of whom belonged to Mr. Ouattara's Dioula ethnic group, after a paramilitary police officer was killed at a pro-Ouattara demonstration.

The killings happened during a spate of political street violence in which Ouattara supporters battled supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, who took power following the ouster of military ruler General Robert Guei.

The Gbagbo government has denied all responsibility for the killings, saying they happened hours before Mr. Gbagbo formally assumed power.

Mr. Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans party has questioned the government's sincerity in bringing the officers to trial. The officers were allowed to go free pending the proceedings. Once on trial, no witnesses testified on behalf of the victims, saying they feared retribution from the paramilitary police forces.

In reading the verdict, the judge said the officers were acquitted due to lack of evidence presented against them.

Outside the Agban police camp where the trial took place, supporters of the paramilitary police officers sang "we won."

A U.N. commission investigating the massacre issued a report last month blaming paramilitary police forces for the killings. Critics have accused the government of holding the trial only as part of an effort to convince the international community that it is doing something to improve the country's human rights record.

Many of the foreign donors who suspended aid to Ivory Coast following its first-ever coup in 1999 have yet to resume assistance. Some have said they will not do so until the country shows it is taking concrete steps to stop human rights abuses.