ABIDJAN, Jan. 2 (GIN) -- A government attack by helicopter on a rebel-held village in the center of embattled Ivory Coast was condemned by the French military detachment which has reportedly been assigned to preserve a fragile ceasefire in this West African nation.

   The 2,500 French troops insist they are neutral in the fighting which pits the government against three rebel divisions. A rebellion against the government of Laurent Gbagbo was sparked on Sept. 19 with an attempt by the government to lay off hundreds of soldiers they believed supported another political partys losing bid for office.

   A French military source said Tuesday's attack - in which 11 civilians are said to have died - was "unacceptable" and would have "inevitable repercussions".

   It is the first time the French have criticized either side since agreeing to maintain the fragile truce signed by the government and the main rebel group, the Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement (MPCI).

   The statement came as another rebel group on Wednesday opened up a new front in the south-west of the country, close to the Liberian border.

   The MPCI, who launched the civil war three months ago by trying to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo, hold the Muslim-dominated northern half of Ivory Coast.

   Government helicopter gunships reportedly attacked the lakeside fishing village of Menakro, about 30 miles north of the ceasefire line agreed in October.

   "People were shot like rabbits," a French soldier told AFP news agency. "This is a very serious incident," French military spokesman Ange-Antoine Leccia said.

   Meanwhile, a rebel army in the western part of the Ivory Coast warned French troops to stay out of the internal dispute.

   While French insist that they are enforcing the ceasefire, rebel groups accuse them of siding with government forces.

   "Yesterday the French were coming up the road towards Bangolo, so our forces had to react immediately... If France want was, France will get war," said Felix Doh of the rebel Ivorian People's Group of the Far West (IMPIGO).