June 29, 2007 / 12:26 PM / in 12 years

Rocket hits Ivory Coast PM's plane, kills four

(Adds death of fourth victim, arrests, quotes)

By Salim Bamba

BOUAKE, Ivory Coast, June 29 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro escaped unhurt when his plane was hit by a rocket after landing in his own rebel stronghold of Bouake on Friday, but four others were killed, witnesses said.

Soro, head of the New Forces rebels who seized the north of the West African country during the 2002-2003 civil war, became prime minister in April after signing a peace deal with President Laurent Gbagbo to guide the country to elections.

The New Forces said they arrested several people after the attack, but did not say if they were members of the movement — which had arranged a lavish welcome for its leader with French and U.N. dignitaries and a brass band waiting to greet Soro.

Three rockets were fired: one exploded inside the cabin, a second flew over the top of the plane and exploded nearby and a third bounced off the fuselage and failed to explode, said a U.N. staff member who saw the attack. Gunshots were also fired.

"There was an explosion and it was panic. The plane had just landed and we waited until the plane came to a stop. We tried to calm people down until the plane stopped," a New Forces administrative assistant who was on board told Reuters.

"Those who fired must have been in the bush. I didn’t see anyone. I don’t know if anyone saw them," the assistant, who declined to be identified, said by phone from Bouake hospital, where he was being treated for an injury to his arm.

Allan Aliali, a journalist also travelling on the plane, told U.N. radio he had seen three bodies in the plane, but could not identify them. Rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate said a fourth victim died later from his wounds.



"PEACE CAN NOT BE ASSASSINATED"

A Reuters reporter saw Soro arrive unharmed at the rebels’ headquarters in Bouake, while several injured companions were treated at the city’s hospital.

"Be assured, the most important thing for us is to advance in this peace process and nothing can stop us. This process cannot be assassinated," rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate told reporters in Bouake, after a ceremony to mark the official return of magistrates to the north under the peace deal.

Rebel reinforcements threw a security cordon around the headquarters and deployed troops at the airport and at road blocks across the city.

News of the attack pushed futures prices for cocoa — of which Ivory Coast is the world’s top producer — to four-year highs in London and New York.

After years of stop-start peace efforts, a deal signed in March in Ouagadougou, capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, has led to progress in dismantling a U.N.-policed military buffer zone cutting the country in two.

"It’s too soon to know who was responsible, but clearly we’re thinking about people in Soro’s own movement who are not happy with the way things have turned out," Gilles Yabi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

"The agreement was a real step forward in the peace process, but it was still fragile because the (citizen) identification process had not yet begun ... and of course because of tensions in the rebel camp," he said.

France, which ruled Ivory Coast until independence in 1960, has troops stationed in the country helping back up more than 7,000 U.N. peacekeepers. France has scaled back its deployment to 3,500 troops from 4,000 since the March agreement. (Additional reporting by Peter Murphy and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan, Anna Willard in Paris and Daniel Flynn in Dakar)




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