French foreign minister's visit is first since 2003

Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign affairs chief, arrives in the Ivory Coast for a weekend visit, the first visit by a French foreign minister to the country since January 2003. (Report: N.Navarro and A-H.Gnanih)


French foreign affairs chief Bernard Kouchner is to visit Ivory Coast at the weekend, a first foreign ministerial visit by France since January 2003, a French diplomatic source said Friday.

The 48-hour visit, starting Saturday morning, is aimed at "encouraging all the Ivorian parties to pursue their efforts in favour of the peace process and preparations for presidential elections due on November 30," the source said.

Kouchner is due to meet President Laurent Gbagbo and former New Forces (FN) rebel chief Guillaume Soro, named prime minister following a peace deal signed in Burkina Faso in March 2007.

Kouchner will also meet former head of state Henri Konan Bedie and ex-PM Alassane Ouattara, each of whom are candidates in November, as well as the president of Ivory Coast's electoral commission and leaders from civil society.

Relations between Ivory Coast and France had long been strained with Gbago's regime criticising Paris for not doing more to quell the FN rebellion after a September 2002 coup attempt, when Soro's organisation took control of the north of the country despite a French military operation being in place.

When the last French foreign minister to visit, Domninique de Villepin, tried to leave the presidential palace in January 2003, he was blocked by pro-Gbagbo demonstrators for half an hour.

Tensions reached a peak in November 2004 when the Ivorian air force killed nine French soldiers and an American national during a raid on the north.

The subsequent destruction of the Ivorian air fleet ordered by then president Jacques Chirac triggered mass demonstrations and the evacuation of some 8,000 foreign nationals, mainly French.

French peacekeepers also opened fire on thousands of demonstrators, killing 20 people, according to French figures, and 60, according to Ivorian authorities.

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