French President Jacques Chirac has marked 90 years since the Battle of Verdun by unveiling a monument to Muslims who fell in the key WWI battle.

The memorial is the first to Muslims who died in 300 days of clashes over the strategically located French town and in other World War I battles.

Mr Chirac hailed the French army in Verdun as "France in its diversity".

He also spoke of friendship with Germany at the ceremony, which was attended by the German ambassador.

'All walks of life'

France erected monuments in the 1930s to Jewish and Christian soldiers among the 300,000 who died at Verdun in 1916.

But until now Muslim soldiers have been honoured only by a small pillar dedicated to Africans who fought in the French army, and 592 graves in the Muslim section of a war cemetery in the town of Douaumont near the battlefields.

At the inauguration of the new white-walled, Moorish style memorial, Mr Chirac remembered Verdun as a moment when "the French nation came together and went forth to the end".

"People of all walks of life, of all beliefs, of all religions, are at Verdun," he said.

Some 72,000 soldiers from France's colonies - including Morocco, Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia and Madagascar - died fighting under the French flag during World War I, he said.

The ceremony was the high point of commemorations marking the 90th anniversary of the 10-month battle against German forces at Verdun.

Discontent

The French president also spoke of reconciliation with Germany: "Today, we can say it with confidence that friendship permits: 'Never again, this!'."

The ceremony comes at a time when the place of Muslims in modern France is hotly debated.

Controversy over a 2004 ban on school pupils wearing headscarves continues and suburban rioting in 2005 was seen largely as an expression of discontent among the descendents of north-African immigrants.

Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the French Muslim Council, said he hoped the new memorial would help close old wounds.

"I hope [this provides] an impulse for the future for a closer integration of all of France's Muslim communities which are also ... completely French communities, thanks in no small part to the blood they have shed," he said.

The Battle of Verdun lasted for 300 days .72,000 soldiers from France's colonies died in WWI, Chirac said

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5114930.stm
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