Paris - A Paris court on Wednesday sentenced a former Ivorian rebel, Ibrahim Coulibaly, to four years in prison in his absence for plotting a 2003 coup in Ivory Coast.

Coulibaly, 44, who is on the run, was found guilty of "heading or organising a group with mercenary objectives," along with 12 other men suspected of conspiring to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo.

Of the other defendants, seven were sentenced to terms ranging from 30 months in prison to 10 months suspended, while five were acquitted of taking part in mercenary activity.

All 13 men were arrested in France in 2003 after the plot was discovered by French intelligence but Coulibaly fled to Benin after he was temporarily released.

Targeted by international arrest warrants, Coulibaly left Benin in December 2007 and his whereabouts are now unknown.

In a telephone interview with AFP in March, the former head of the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI) rebel group said he was in Belgium and reiterated that he was innocent.

Coulibaly claimed the trial was politically motivated, "to prevent me from returning to my country and running as a candidate against Gbagbo" in presidential elections expected to take place this year.

A former Ivorian army officer, Coulibaly spearheaded the September 2002 coup in which rebels seized the north of the country, but was later sidelined by Guillaume Soro, head of the rebel New Forces and now Ivorian prime minister.

The trial opened on March 10, with prosecutors arguing that Coulibaly had recruited mercenaries to launch a rocket attack on Gbagbo's convoy in August 2003.