Côte d'Ivoire rebuilding air force, says UN report

Côte d’Ivoire’s government has begun rebuilding its air force, one year after it was mostly destroyed by French forces in retaliation for an air raid that killed nine French soldiers, a United Nations report says.

The UN report was expected to be released on Monday, but a copy obtained by The Associated Press says a 10-man team of technicians from Belarus and Ukraine was in Abidjan under contract by the Ivorian defence ministry to repair the aircraft.

“Since November 2004, the government of Côte d’Ivoire has sought to repair, maintain and rebuild” the Ivorian air force, the report says.

Côte d’Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo’s defence adviser, Kadet Bertin, said only civilian aircraft were under repair, intended for use by Gbagbo and visiting heads of state.

The UN report says, however, that Côte d’Ivoire’s defence ministry acknowledged hiring the technicians to help rebuild its air force.

The report says it is unclear whether the attempt to rebuild the air force is in violation of an arms embargo, and called on the UN sanctions committee on Côte d’Ivoire to look into the matter.

According to the UN, seven helicopters and planes were destroyed by the French last year, while eight other military aircraft are still in working order. Rebels who control the northern half of Côte d’Ivoire have 11 military aircraft, but none are working or under repair.

The French peacekeepers were killed on November 6 last year when two Ivorian planes pounded their base in Bouake, the main city in rebel-held northern Côte d’Ivoire. The unexplained attack came as the Ivorian army was launching bombing runs on rebel targets, breaking a 2003 ceasefire accord.

French President Jacques Chirac ordered the destruction of the Ivorian aircraft used in the raids, sparking massive anti-French riots in Côte d’Ivoire that forced thousands to flee.
The UN Security Council subsequently banned arms sales and military assistance to Côte d’Ivoire.

Three UN experts mandated to monitor the arms embargo say in the report that technicians from Belarus worked on two helicopters believed to belong to Côte d’Ivoire in Togo’s capital, Lome, in June. The helicopters were imported as flight simulators—which cannot take off—but were being upgraded to combat aircraft.

Bertin said he had no knowledge of Ivorian aircraft based in Togo.

The UN report will be updated by December 1 and submitted to the UN Security Council, which will vote by December 15 on whether to renew the arms embargo and the panel of experts’ mandate.

If the arms embargo has been breached, the UN could carry out threats of sanctions against individuals seen to be blocking the peace process.

Under the arms embargo, it is forbidden to provide “any assistance, advice or training to do with military activity” in Côte d’Ivoire. Both Russia and China cancelled planned military training of Ivorian troops after the embargo was imposed.

“Côte d’Ivoire has respected the embargo to the letter. And we will continue to respect the embargo,” Bertin said.

Civil war broke out in Côte d’Ivoire in September 2002, after a failed coup d’état in the main city, Abidjan. A ceasefire was agreed to in January 2003, but the former French colony has remained divided between a mainly Muslim, rebel-held north and a majority-Christian, loyalist south.

There are 10 000 French and UN peacekeepers guarding an east-to-west ceasefire line, but this has not prevented occasional flare-ups of violence, including last November’s attacks.

Last month, United States-based Human Rights Watch said the Ivorian army was recruiting mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia, including child soldiers, for a future offensive—allegations the government denied.—Sapa-AP

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