Paris court issues life sentences during 2004 bombings that triggered Franco-Ivorian clashes

A Paris court on Thursday handed down life sentences to two Ivorian officers and a Belarusian mercenary convicted in the absence of the deadly bombing in 2004 by French peacekeepers off the Ivory Coast that triggered days of heavy clashes.

The Ivorians Patrice Ouei and Ange Gnanduillet and the Belarusian citizen Yury Sushkin were found guilty of carrying out the raid near the Ivorian city of Bouaké on November 6, 2004, in which nine French soldiers and an American aid worker were killed.

The Bouaké bombing targeted a peacekeeping force deployed in a buffer zone between the government-controlled south of the Ivory Coast and the rebel-controlled north.

It led to a French retaliatory strike that wiped out Côte d’Ivoire’s small air force, which in turn triggered days of fierce clashes that saw French helicopters take people to safety as angry mobs chased foreigners through the streets of Abdijan and other cities.

Thursday’s verdict hides a long-running legal battle that has driven suspicions of a cover-up. The three men were tried in absentia after controversially escaping capture in the days after the raid.

Laurent Gbagbo, the then Ivorian president, whose ties with the former colonial power had already collapsed at the time, has always denied having ordered the Bouaké airstrikes.

The case was brought by some 40 plaintiffs, including victims of the killed peacekeepers and some of the dozens of soldiers injured in the airstrikes – the deadliest attack on French forces since the 1983 bombing of Beirut.

The complainants hoped that the three-week hearings would help to shed light on the many unanswered questions in a case that carries nuances of France’s often murky business in its former African colonies.

How suspects got away

Shortly after the Bouaké airstrikes, the three suspects were identified in photos taken by French intelligence at an airport near the capital Yamoussoukro, next to the Sukhoi-25 aircraft used in the attack.

Ten days later, Yury Sushkin and seven other Belarusians were arrested by Togolese authorities after leaving Côte d’Ivoire. Togo offered to hand them over to French authorities, who in a twist that has puzzled investigators suggested that they be released instead.

It was the second time France 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.

A Russian-made Sukhoi-25 jet after it was hit by a retaliatory French strike in the wake of the Bouaké bombing. © Pascal Guyot, AFP

According to investigators, French diplomats, soldiers and intelligence services had been instructed “not to interfere” in the case. Officials who have asked questions over the years have repeatedly claimed that the priority then was to rescue French citizens living in Côte d’Ivoire at the time.

Ministers asked

Failure to arrest the suspects has led to an examination of the role of the three senior prime ministers at the time: Michèle Alliot-Marie, then Minister of Defense Dominique de Villepin, the former Minister of the Interior, and Michel Barnier, who holds the foreign portfolio.

Attempts to prosecute the three former ministers collapsed in 2019 when the Cour de Justice de la République, the only court with jurisdiction to try ministers, chose not to take up the case.

Instead, the trio appeared as witnesses in the Paris trial, although they could not explain how the three suspects escaped.

High-ranking French officials have long supported the hypothesis that an Ivorian military “blunder” was orchestrated by the Gbagbo government. They claim that its goal was to either divert attention from a failed campaign against northern rebels or to break the country’s remaining ties with its former colonial power.

Among the complainants, however, the widespread frustration over the many barriers suffered by investigators over the years has only increased suspicions of a possible cover-up.

Along with Gbagbo’s entourage, some relatives of the victims suspect that their loved ones were caught in a complicated operation aimed at discrediting the Ivorian president and justifying a French riposte.

Gbagbo was eventually forced out of power in 2011, with the help of French peacekeepers, following a controversial presidential election won by his longtime rival, Alassane Ouattara.