Four French soldiers in custody over death of Ivorian prisoner

Police in France were holding four French peacekeeping soldiers Tuesday in connection with the suffocation death of a prisoner in Ivory Coast, judicial officials said. One of the soldiers, identified as Col. Eric Burgaud, was taken into custody Tuesday and the other three were detained Monday.

Three of them had been riding in an armored vehicle where the prisoner, suspected Ivorian gang leader Firmin Mahe, was killed by suffocation on May 13, French judicial officials said. Burgaud, who was not in the car, was the commanding officer.

The soldiers were expected to appear before an investigating magistrate, who will determine whether to place them under formal investigation for suspected murder - one step short of formal charges.

Earlier this month, the Defense Ministry said that commanders knew of the killing but did not report it to their superiors. Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie gave an official warning to Gen. Henri Poncet, who commanded France's 4,000-strong peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast at the time of the killing, as well as Poncet's deputy.

The head of France's armed forces, Gen. Henri Bentegeat, called the events "unacceptable at every level." He said Mahe was suspected of five murders and five rapes. He was injured by a bullet to one of his legs, probably by French soldiers' warning shots, before being arrested. He was suffocated en route to a hospital in the western city of Man, the Defense Ministry said.

Ivory Coast has been in turmoil since 2002, when rebels launched a failed coup and seized the northern half of the country, AP reports.

A. A.

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