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 Saturday, 21 December, 2002, 20:32 GMT
France's changing role in Ivory Coast
French troops at their base at a school in Duekoue
French troops opened fire on rebels on Saturday

Although the French peacekeepers will argue otherwise, Saturday's battle against the Ivorian rebels has marked a change in their role in the war-torn Ivory Coast.

The French army first moved out of its barracks in its former colony shortly after the uprising broke out more than three months ago.

The French have done what they promised themselves they would not do. They have become involved in this war.

They said then that they were protecting foreigners, including 20,000 French citizens living in the country, and that is what they say they were doing on this occasion, by stopping the rebels moving further south.

But this was the first time the French have fought to stop a rebel advance - and they did it while the Ivory Coast army were taking shelter behind their lines.

These rebels are from two new groups which appeared in the west of the country three weeks ago.

They have no ceasefire with the government, unlike the main rebel force which took half the country three months ago.

Previous clashes

The French have clashed with these new rebels before.

They had to fight their way into the airport in the western city of Man to be able to fly out French citizens and other foreigners caught up in the fighting - but that was action to get people out of danger.

French troops load mortars and equipment on trucks
France has more than 1,500 troops in Ivory Coast
Saturday's clash was a more active role to stop the rebels taking more ground.

And like it or not, the French will be seen as having fought for the Ivory Coast Government in stopping the advance of rebels where the country's own army has failed.

The French have also warned the original rebel group and the Ivory Coast army that any attempt to break the truce between them will be met with French force as well.

In the early days of the fourth month of the war, the French have done what they promised themselves they would not do.

They have become involved in this war.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Paul Welsh reports from Ivory Coast
"The French know they've taken on a difficult job"

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21 Dec 02 | Africa
18 Dec 02 | Africa
12 Dec 02 | Africa
08 Dec 02 | Africa
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