ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Government warplanes bombed a rebel stronghold Saturday, killing a French peacekeeper and injuring 20 other people, and French troops responded by shooting down two military planes and an attack helicopter, U.N. officials said.
The violence threatened to drag French and U.N. peacekeepers into Ivory Coast’s renewed civil war, sparked when army hardliners Thursday broke a cease-fire after more than a year of relative peace and launched airstrikes on rebel-held cities.
The government warplanes struck the northern town of Bouake on Saturday afternoon, killing the French soldier, U.N. mission spokesman Jean Victor Nkolo said. It was not clear whether the 20 injured were French soldiers or others, or what the air raid was targeting.
Soon after, a U.N. military spokesman said French forces shot down two Ivory Coast warplanes and an attack helicopter over rebel territory.
Ivory Coast military commanders have vowed to retake the north, held by rebels since the September 2002 start of the war in the world’s top cocoa producer.
France and the United Nations (news – web sites) have about 10,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, a former French colony. Some of the peacekeepers are deployed in positions in a buffer zone separating the government-controlled south from the north.
A U.N. military spokesman said the 6,200-strong U.N. force in Ivory Coast lacked the manpower to guard all routes into the rebel north.
“It’s not impossible for the forces to go around our post” to reach rebel strongholds, spokesman Philippe Moreux said. “We are only on the main road.”
There were no immediate reports of new clashes Saturday.
Fearing a spread of the fighting, the France-based relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Border, said Saturday it was evacuating some staff from its hospital in the western town of Danane, about 20 miles from Ivory Coast’s border with Liberia (news – web sites). The west saw some of the most brutal attacks of the war.
“We are very worried,” the aid group’s spokeswoman Vanessa van Schoor said. “We really hope that the hospital will not be attacked. We still have patients inside. The population of Danane has suffered a great deal already” in the war.
Van Schoor said the hospital would remain functioning. She declined to say how many staffers were being brought out or where they were being taken.
Ivory Coast’s war killed thousands and uprooted more than 1 million, threatening efforts by neighboring countries — Sierra Leone and Liberia — to recover from their own vicious civil wars of the 1990s.
Last year’s peace deals, brokered under international pressure, ended major fighting but an agreed-upon power-sharing government has never taken hold.
The U.N. Security Council — which has poured billions of dollars and thousands of peace troops into West and Central Africa to support peace accords — expressed alarm at the renewed fighting, as have France, the United States and others.
Nigerian President Olosegun Obasanjo, current president of the African Union, opened talks with regional leaders Saturday at his farm on the outskirts of Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, to look for a way out of the crisis.
Senior African Union officials were among those attending. Remi Oyo, Obasanjo’s spokeswoman, declined to say if Ivory Coast government or rebel representatives would take part.