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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Monday 24 January 2005

COTE D IVOIRE: UN allows Gbagbo to repair damaged planes

ABIDJAN, 24 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - President Laurent Gbagbo's armed forces have begun transferring to Abidjan four attack aircraft damaged by French peacekeepers during a flare-up of hostilities in November in order to repair them, sparking fears of a resumption of hostilities among city residents.

However, the United Nations, which imposed an international arms embargo on Cote d'Ivoire in November, said it had given its permission for the move. It added that the planes would be kept under UN supervision at Abidjan airport.

One lightly repaired Mi-24 helicopter gunship and a Strike Master ground attack jet were flown to Abidjan from the official capital Yamoussoukro on Monday after test flights at the weekend.

Two badly damaged Russian-built Sukho 25 fighter jets were due to arrive by road under UN supervision, according to a joint statement issued by the French and UN peacekeeping troops.

"The aircraft can not carry arms or ammunition and they will be kept under UN supervision at the main airport," said UN spokesman, Hamadou Toure.

"It was basically a proof of goodwill from the armed forces to ask our authorisation first," he said.

However, opposition dailies accused the United Nations of giving Gbagbo the "green light" to resume fighting following its bombing raids on the rebel-held north in early November, which were intended to pave the way for a ground offensive. This was stopped in its tracks after French troops incapacitated the air force's small fleet of jet bombers and attack helicopters on the ground.

Toure dismissed suggestions that the government planes would soon be repaired and taking to the air to launch fresh attacks.

"There is no absolutely question of rearmament or anything like that," he told IRIN.

Military spokesman, Jules Yao Yao told IRIN that the relocation and repair of the aircraft might enable the government to resume the training of Ivorian pilots. Diplomats say Cote d'Ivoire's small air force currently relies on foreign mercenaries to fly its combat planes.

"We're taking the aircraft back to Abidjan because we have a national air force and our pilots and technicians need to work - we might try to repair them so our pilots can use them for training purposes, " said Yao Yao.

"Furthermore, when the war is over, which at some point it should be, we ought to be able to defend our country against attacks from abroad with a proper air force."

The government began bombing rebel targets in the north on 4 November, but the French intervened swiftly after to disable its combat aircraft after Russian and Ukranian mercenary pilots bombed a French military base in the rebel capital Bouake, killing nine peacekeepers and injuring 31.

It is unclear how many government air craft still function. According to the specialist newsletter Journal of Electronic Defence, the French left two Sukho 25 fighter bombers beyond repair and completely destroyed three gunship helicopters, including two Russian built Mi-24's. Four more helicopters were badly damaged, it said.

Colonel Henri Aussavy, the French army spokesman in Cote d'Ivoire, told reporters the Ivorian air force owned "four or five" Sukho jets.

On Sunday, rebel leader Guillaume Soro travelled to South Africa for talks with President Thabo Mbeki, who is currently spearheading mediation efforts to resurrect a faltering two-year-old peace agreement in Cote d'Ivoire.

They met for several hours along with former Ivorian prime minister Alassane Ouattara, the leader of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) opposition party, who the rebels insist should be allowed to run as presidential candidate in elections due in October, and an envoy from the Democratic Party of Cte d'Ivoire (PDCI), the largest opposition party in parliament.

Before flying to South Africa, Soro told reporters in Bouake that repairing the government's fighter planes was a violation of the peace agreement.

"[Gbagbo] is authorised to repair the planes, but he can't rearm them? That's like allowing somebody to go fishing and then saying that he can't eat the fish that he has caught," he said.

Soro asked to see Mbeki in South Africa after refusing to attend a joint meeting with him and Gbagbo in Yamoussoukro earlier this month.

[ENDS]



This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004



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