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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 September, 2003, 22:10 GMT 23:10 UK
French army in Ivorian rebel town
French tanks at BCEAO in Bouake
The French deployment in Bouake was welcomed by the rebels
French troops in Ivory Coast have for the first time entered the rebel stronghold of Bouake, following a bank robbery and a shootout that killed at least 23 people.

The intervention was approved by the rebels, and designed to curb violence in the city, a French army spokesman said.

Until now the rebels, who control half of the country, have accused Paris of siding with the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.

In the past week the rebels - who call themselves the New Forces - walked out of a power-sharing government brokered by France.

On Saturday French troops based outside Bouake rolled into the city and sealed off the area around the local branch of the West African central bank (BCEAO).

"They are position around the bank at the moment," a French military spokesman told Reuters news agency.

Michele Alliot-Marie
The events on Bouake will make (Ivorians) consider the benefits of extending the confidence zone
Michele Alliot-Marie
French Defence Minister

"Everything is very quiet," New Forces leader Guillaume Soro, said.

The fighting in Bouake, which occurred over two days, reportedly began when armed robbers tried to rob the bank on Thursday.

A stampede also broke out as civilians tried to grab money.

A total of 23 people are reported to have been killed, as 37 others wounded, as rebels forces moved to restore order.

A French army spokesman said peacekeepers decided to step in "to avoid looting and the development of a dangerous situation for the city's population".

Divided country

The French troops were stationed south of Bouake, to enforce the ceasefire between the rebels and the government.

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the buffer zone patrolled by French and West African peacekeepers may be widened as result of the incident.

"I think the events on Bouake will make them (the Ivorians) consider the benefits of extending the confidence zone," she said on Saturday.

France sent 3,800 soldiers to its former colony, after rebels seized northern and western parts of Ivory Coast in an attempt to overthrow President Gbagbo a year ago.

The government has retained control of the south, including the commercial capital, Abidjan.

Despite a French-brokered a peace accord in January, the two sides remain at loggerheads and the country divided.

Last Tuesday the New Forces pulled out of the power-sharing government.


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