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30 Jun 2007 09:00
Côte d’Ivoire Prime Minister Guillaume Soro narrowly escaped a rocket attack on his plane on Friday that killed at least four people and dealt a blow to the divided country’s fragile peace process.
Three rockets and gunfire hit the plane at about 10.30am GMT just after it landed at Bouake, the headquarters of Soro’s New Forces rebel movement, sources on the plane said.
The brief attack was carried out by a small group of men hidden near the runway armed with a rocket-launcher and Kalashnikov assault rifles who then fled, security sources said.
“The aim was to make the aircraft blow up,” Sidiki Konate, a government minister and a member of Soro’s entourage, said, accusing “enemies of the peace process” of being behind it.
Soro, who has controlled the northern half of the West African country since a 2002 attempt to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo, was rushed to Bouake after the attack and later appeared before reporters apparently unharmed.
A journalist who was a passenger, Diarra Sanou, said four people were killed in the attack. Security sources said about 10 people had been hurt.
Soro’s personal bodyguards opened fire to secure the airport perimeter, the sources said, and firing between the airport and Bouake city continued for more than an hour after.
United Nations peacekeepers in the West African country were also brought in to secure the area, including air and land patrols, General Fernand Amoussou, the head of the UN force, told a news conference.
Security around Soro’s residence was stepped up with about 30 Moroccan UN troops standing guard.
Some sources put the attack down to clashes between New Forces factions, some of which have branded Soro a traitor since he was named prime minister in April after signing a peace deal with Gbagbo.
Soro went to Bouake for a ceremony restoring the judiciary, an event seen as a key step in the peace process aimed at reunifying the country.
Gbagbo was due in Bouake on July 5 to head a disarmament ceremony along with South African President Thabo Mbeki, a leading mediator in the lengthy reconciliation efforts.
In Abidjan, the economic capital, security forces and government departments were on the alert after the attack, but a statement from Gbagbo’s office said he still planned to attend an African Union summit in Ghana from Sunday.
The statement called the attack “a hiccup on the irreversible path to peace”, while Konate told France-Info radio that the incident would not affect the peace process.
The AU’s commissioner for peace and security, Said Djinnit, called Soro a “key figure in the peace process” and added “you cannot shoot at peace”.
The UN Security Council and secretary general condemned the attack and said they feared for the future of a negotiated peace plan.
France, the former colonial power, said it “condemns with the greatest firmness this cowardly attack and reaffirms its solidarity with the whole of the Ivorian nation and people”.
France has more than 3 000 troops in Côte d’Ivoire operating alongside around 8 000 UN peacekeepers patrolling a buffer zone dividing the rebel-controlled north and the government-held south.
On Wednesday, the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank warned there was a long way to go to resolve the fall-out from Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war. The peace agreement signed in March is “only a first step in the right direction” that helps to remove the spectre of an armed conflict, but lasting peace remains fragile, it said.
It called for the two former arch-foes to pass the test of population identification, voter registration, army restructuring and conduct of free and credible elections.
Earlier mediation attempts by France, the UN, the AU and the Economic Community of West African States all failed to bring lasting peace in the world’s top cocoa grower and regional economic powerhouse.—Sapa-AFP
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