Three pilots are being tried in absentia starting Monday over the deadly 2004 bombing of French peacekeepers in Ivory Coast that triggered days of fierce clashes, following a protracted legal battle that has fuelled suspicions of a cover-up.
Nine French soldiers and a US aid worker were killed in the Ivorian city of Bouaké on November 6, 2004, when Ivorian jets targeted a peacekeeping force deployed in a buffer zone between the government-controlled south of the country and the rebel-held north.
The bombing prompted a French retaliatory strike that wiped out Ivory Coast’s small air force, in turn triggering days of fierce clashes that saw French helicopters pluck people to safety as angry mobs hunted foreigners through the streets of Abdijan and other cities.
Laurent Gbagbo, the then-Ivorian president whose relations with the former colonial power had already plummeted at the time, has always denied ordering the Bouaké airstrikes.
More than 16 years on, two Ivorian officers and a Belarussian mercenary went on trial in a Paris court on Monday accused of carrying out the Bouaké strikes. They are being tried in absentia having controversially evaded capture in the days following the raid.
The case is brought by some 40 plaintiffs, including victims of the slain peacekeepers and some of the dozens of soldiers who were injured in the air strikes – the deadliest attack on French forces since the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing.
The plaintiffs are hoping the three weeks of hearings will help shed light on the many unanswered questions raised by a case that carries shades of France’s often murky dealings in its former African colonies.
They will be particularly keen on hearing from three former ministers involved in the decision-making process that resulted in the suspects somehow slipping away right under the nose of French authorities.
Did France allow the suspects to slip away?
Shortly after the Bouaké airstrikes, the three suspects – Ivorian lieutenants Ange Magloire Gnanduillet Attualy and Patrice Ouei, and Belarussian national Yury Sushkin – were identified in pictures taken by French intelligence at an airport near the capital, Yamoussoukro, standing next to the Sukhoi-25 planes used in the attack.
Ten days later, Yury Sushkin and seven other Belarussians were detained by Togolese authorities after travelling from Ivory Coast. Togo offered to turn them over to French authorities, who, in a twist that has puzzled investigators, suggested they be released instead.
It was the second time France had potentially allowed at least one of the suspects to slip away.
The day after the Bouaké airstrikes, French troops in Abidjan detained 15 mercenaries from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, only to release them four days later.
According to investigators, French diplomats, soldiers and intelligence had been instructed “not to get involved” in the matter. Officials quizzed over the years have repeatedly argued that the priority at the time was to rescue French nationals living in Ivory Coast at the time.
Failure to apprehend the suspects has prompted scrutiny of the role of three senior cabinet ministers at the time: Michèle Alliot-Marie, then the defence minister, Dominique de Villepin, the former interior minister, and Michel Barnier, who held the foreign affairs portfolio.
Attempts to prosecute the three former ministers collapsed in 2019 when the Cour de justice de la République, the only court with the power to try ministers, chose not to take up the case. Instead, the trio will appear as witnesses in the Paris trial.
Suspicions of cover-up
On the eve of the hearings, Jean Balan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, expressed his dismay “at the cynicism of those who were in power and uttered shameless lies, with complete disregard for the truth and the families of the victims.”
Despite the trial’s narrow focus, Balan will be seeking answers to the key question that continues to haunt their clients, namely who ordered the air strikes and why.
Senior French officials have long backed the hypothesis of an Ivorian military “blunder” orchestrated by Gbagbo’s government. Its aim, they argue, was either to turn the attention away from a failing campaign against northern rebels or to sever the country’s remaining ties with its former colonial power.
Among the plaintiffs, however, widespread frustration at the many roadblocks hit by investigators over the years has only heightened suspicions of a potential cover-up.
Along with Gbagbo’s entourage, some relatives of the victims suspect their loved ones were caught up in a botched operation aimed at discrediting the Ivorian president and justifying a French riposte.
Gbagbo was eventually forced from power in 2011, with the help of French peacekeeping forces, following a disputed presidential election won by his longtime rival, Alassane Ouattara.