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France Opens Inquiry into Killing of Journalist in Ivory Coast - 2003-10-28

French prosecutors have started a murder inquiry into last week's killing of a French radio reporter in Ivory Coast by a police officer.

As part of the investigation, an autopsy was performed in France after the body of journalist Jean Helene was flown home.

French investigators are trying to determine from which angle the bullet was fired into Mr. Helene's skull. He was shot dead by a policeman last week as he waited for opposition militants to be released from police custody.

Under France's justice system, French officials can investigate the murders of its citizens abroad.

Mr. Helene, whose real name was Christian Baldensperger, was buried in the eastern French town of Mulhouse on Monday.

His brother, a Protestant pastor, said he believes the killing was caused by a climate of hatred and mistrust in Ivory Coast since a civil war erupted last year.

Supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo have accused foreign journalists of being spies for northern-based rebels and enemies of Ivory Coast.

A police sergeant has admitted killing Mr. Helene after the two argued, but said the shooting was unintentional. A newspaper close to Mr. Gbagbo, Notre Voie, has created a support committee for the sergeant, Sery Theodore Dago, saying he may not have a fair trial because of international pressure.

The accused killer is an ethnic Bete from southwestern Ivory Coast, as are Mr. Gbagbo and many of his supporters.

Speaking to foreign journalists in his offices last week, Mr. Gbagbo expressed his condolences but offered no apologies, instead telling foreign journalists they should ask themselves why many Ivorians now hate them.

Mr. Gbagbo said the news media have become crazy since the start of the civil war. He said he no longer reads French newspapers, because he said they are full of slander against his government, including allegations he is linked to death squads, which he denies.

Several foreign journalists at the meeting said they were considering leaving Ivory Coast because they no longer feel safe here. They said they are often insulted and threatened by army officers and policemen carrying AK-47 weapons. Many news organizations use Abidjan as a base to cover West Africa, but several have moved their operations elsewhere in the region during the last two years.