UN and French peacekeepers fire shots at rebel demonstrations

UN and French peacekeeping troops fired warning shots in the direction of rowdy rebel demonstrators who attacked them with stones and slingshots in Bouake, the rebel capital of Cote d'Ivoire, on Monday, an IRIN reporter at the scene and a French military spokesman said.

The rebel authorities said later in a statement that three civilians were injured when Moroccan troops serving with the UN peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire fired on the crowd of demonstrators which gathered outside their headquarters in Bouake on Monday morning.

The UN Operation in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI), said in a statement that the peacekeepers in Bouake only fired warning shots in the air. It categorically denied rebel suggestions that they had fired directly at the protestors.

"The UN blue helmets, who had received orders to act with the greatest restraint, fired warning shots into the air. At no point did UN military personnel fire at civilians," the statement said.

ONUCI spokesman Jean-Victor Nkolo said that at one point during the disturbances a fire broke out in the peacekeepers' headquarters, which formerly served as the telephone company's regional office.

The IRIN eyewitness at the scene said UN peacekeeping troops fired several shots in the direction of the crowd of about 1,000 demonstrators.

The rebel authorities accused "excited soldiers" of shooting at a "peaceful" crowd, but the IRIN reporter at the scene said the demonstrators were carrying rocks and slingshots which they used to attack the UN troops.

Some carried placards reading "We don't want ONUCI," and "No disarmament on (October) 15 unless political reforms are voted through" as they surged forward to try and tear up a barbed wire fence that surrounded the UN building. Several cars were damaged in the melee, the IRIN reporter said.

Less than an hour after the commotion began, a separate crowd of about 400 equally unruly rebel demonstrators attacked the French military headquarters in Bouake, located in the compound of the city's French school.

French military spokesman Colonel Henry Aussavy said three French soldiers were slightly injured as the crowd burst through the gates of the compound.

Another French military spokesman said later that French troops used tear gas and fired warning shots in the air to drive back the crowd.

Aussavy told IRIN that the situation outside the French base calmed down after rebel military commanders arrived on the scene to pacify the crowd and break up the demonstration.

The French and UN peacekeeping forces in Cote d'Ivoire have frequently come under attack in the government-held south of the country from the militia-style youth groups that support President Laurent Gbagbo, who are known as Young Patriots.

However, over the past week, the 4,000 French troops and 6,000 UN peacekeepers have also become the target of rebel supporters in the north of the country too.

Last Thursday, three Moroccan peacekeepers serving with the UN forces were injured and one UN vehicle was damaged when rebel supporters staged an earlier demonstration outside the ONUCI office in Bouake.

And on Saturday eyewitnesses said a similar protest against French peacekeepers took place in the western rebel stronghold of Man. A French military spokesman told IRIN on Monday that tear gas and warning shots had also been fired on that occasion during which, he said, 10 French peacekeepers were hurt.

Tension has been rising throughout the country in recent weeks as a result of renewed deadlock in efforts to end Cote d'Ivoire's two-year-old civil war.

Following the latest demonstrations in Bouake, rebel leader Guillaume Soro failed to turn up for a planned meeting with Gbagbo and military chiefs of the government armed forces, the rebel army and the French and UN peacekeeping forces in Cote d'Ivoire's official capital Yamoussoukro on Monday.

The meeting had been called in the city 100 km south of Bouake to try to find a way forward in Cote d'Ivoire's troubled peace process following Gbagbo's failure to push through promised political reforms before the scheduled start of disarmament on 15 October.

Gbagbo and most of the ministers of Cote d'Ivoire's broad-based government of national reconciliation arrived in Yamoussoukro, along with the rebel military commander, Colonel Sumaila Bakayoko. However, an IRIN reporter in Yamoussoukro said only one of the seven rebel ministers in the 41-member cabinet showed up.

Over the weekend, Soro made clear that his New Forces rebel movement, which controls the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire, would not disarm before the reforms promised by the January 2003 Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement were on the statute book.

The opposition newspaper Le Patriote quoted Soro as saying after a three-hour meeting with rebel political and military leaders on Saturday night: " The political reforms are not in place. So there will be no disarmament on October 15. There will not even be a cantonment of forces on that date."

He added: " On September 30 the laws of the Marcoussis agreement were blocked by the deputies of Laurent Gbagbo and nothing happened. On October 15 there will be no disarmament. There will be nothing. Full stop."