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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 November, 2004, 15:18 GMT
France scorns beheading claim
Pro-government protesters in Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Anti-French feeling has reached fever pitch in Abidjan
France has scornfully rejected a claim by Ivory Coast's president and its top Roman Catholic cleric that French troops beheaded young protesters there.

Officials condemned President Laurent Gbagbo's "disinformation" and urged him to stop fuelling anti-French hatred.

Cardinal Bernard Agre said last week he had seen young girls decapitated by the French army - a charge President Gbagbo said he believed to be true.

The civil war reignited on 4 November, when Ivorian forces attacked rebels.

'Outrageous claims'

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the "outrageousness" of the claims "strips them of any credibility".

"These charges amount to disinformation similar to President Gbagbo's doubts about the reality of the French military victims in Bouake," she told France-Inter radio.

29 Sept: Parliament fails to meet deadline for political reforms
15 Oct: Rebels ignore deadline for disarmament
28 Oct: Rebels withdraw from unity government
4 Nov: Government aircraft begin air strikes on rebel-held territory
6 Nov: Air strike kills nine French soldiers; France destroys Ivorian planes
7 Nov: Gbagbo supporters demonstrate against the French in Abidjan; UN condemns Ivorian attacks
8,9 Nov: Anti-French rioting
10 Nov: French begin evacuating civilians
15 Nov: UN sanctions imposed

There are currently 4,000 French troops in Ivory Coast trying to enforce a ceasefire between the rebels in the north and the government-controlled south.

Tensions have been running high between the French and the Ivorians, after French forces destroyed most of the Ivorian air force in retaliation for an air raid which killed nine of its peacekeepers.

Government supporters have taken to the streets to protest against the French military action.

Cardinal Agre alleged some of the protesters had been beheaded, in an interview with Vatican Radio last week.

"I've just come back from the hospitals, it's unbearable, these young girls decapitated by the French army, these people even lying on the floor," he said.

President Gbagbo said in a French internet forum on Saturday that he believed the beheading charge to be true.

But he admitted he had not visited morgues as Cardinal Agre had done.

Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo
Paris has called on Gbagbo to stop stoking anti-French sentiment
"This testimony by the prelate was reported by all the people who were present at the siege of the Hotel Ivoire by the French army and all those who were in the hospitals," he told the forum organised by Le Nouvel Observateur newspaper.

"I wasn't in the hospitals but everyone who went there said it. We can assume this testimony repeated by several people is true."

On 6 November the Ivorian air force killed nine French peacekeepers while attacking the rebel stronghold of Bouake in the north of the country.

Mr Gbagbo suggested that, as he had not seen the bodies of the French soldiers, they may not exist.

Last week he called for the French business community who fled the unrest to return to the country.

He said French and Ivorian "mutual interests" were currently at stake.


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