Two French soldiers are reported to have been killed by former rebels in central Ivory Coast. These are the first French deaths since 4,000 troops from that nation were sent to Ivory Coast for peacekeeping duties in the wake of a rebellion in the west African country last September.

After an altercation on a routine patrol in a demilitarized zone, according to French officials, the ex-rebels opened fire on the French soldiers.

The patrol of 25 French troops had been chatting to local fishermen when heavily armed former-rebel fighters began hurling abuse and then shooting at them. French officials claim the ex-rebels, known as the New Forces, were drunk.

French spokesman Colonel Christian Battiste, said the French troops returned fire. But he described it as an isolated incident and said most rebels were cooperating with the peace effort.

Rebels seized half of Ivory Coast in an uprising last year. The demilitarized zone was set up by France to keep rebels in the north of the country away from the commercial and administrative capital, Abidjan, in the south.

Under French guidance, Ivory Coast has embarked on a process of reconciliation. But several stumbling blocks are threatening the process and a disarmament program appears to be some way off.

Last week, Ivorian Prime Minister Seydou Diarra conceded that the peace process was at a standstill over the failure to make appointments to the key posts of defense and security. The former rebels are accusing President Laurent Gbagbo of failing to adhere to the terms of the January 2003 peace deal.

Leaders of the New Forces are questioning whether elections can go ahead in 2005 as planned.

Meanwhile, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has thanked French President Jacques Chirac for the arrest of 10 suspected coup plotters in Paris. The group included Ibrahim Coulibaly, widely suspected to be involved in last year's uprising.

Rumors of a coup plot had circulated in Abidjan for days, leading to a heavier than usual army presence on the city's streets.