France frees six people held for plotting to oust Gbagbo

France has released from custody Master Sergent Ibrahim Coulibaly, a well known leader of military coups in Cote d'Ivoire, and five other people who were arrested three weeks ago on suspicion of recruiting mercenaries to commit acts of terrorism in the West African country.

French embassy officials confirmed media reports from Paris that Coulibaly and five of his alleged accomplices were freed on bail by an appeal court judge on Tuesday. A total of 12 men were arrested in France on 23 and 24 August. Only four now remain in custody.

Shortly after the wave of arrests in France, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo accused Coulibaly, a key figure in previous military coup attempts, of plotting to assassinate him in connivance with several accomplices in the armed forces and police.

Military sources said that more than 50 people were subsequently arrested, including an air force general and a top police officer, although the military prosecutor's office has only admitted holding 18 people - 11 military personnel and seven civilians. These have since been transferred to the jurisdiction of a civil court.

The alleged coup plot was discovered at a time when the peace process in Cote d'Ivoire was threatening to unravel over Gbagbo's refusal to name a minister of defence and a minister of internal security acceptable to all parties in the broad-based government of national reconciliation headed by Prime Minister Seydou Diarra.

Created in March, Diarra's administration has been charged with healing the rifts caused by the outbreak of civil war in September last year. It is due to lead Cote d'Ivoire into fresh elections in 2005.

But eight months after the signing of a French-brokered peace agreement in January, rebel forces occupying the north of the country have yet to disarm and allow the return of civilian administrators to the vast area they control.

Last weekend, however, Gbagbo cleared the way for the process of disarmament to begin by choosing new ministers of defence and internal security from a list of four names submitted to him by the prime minister.

The northern rebels immediately objected to the appointments, but diplomats and political sources said they would reluctantly accept them and continue implementing the January peace agreement.

The rebel Patriotic Movement of Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI) disassociated itself from the alleged coup plot and said Coulibaly was not a member of the organisation. However, it campaigned hard for his release and is likely be mollified by the French court's decision to free him.