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Rioters overrun airport as French flee former colony
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- A 5,000-strong stone-throwing mob invaded Ivory Coast's main airport Friday, storming planes on the tarmac and taunting, slapping and spitting at terrorized French families in flight from their former West African colony.
"Never come back!" one band of young men shouted, spewing profanities at a woman and three children who ran sobbing under a gauntlet of blows from parking lot to terminal.
French forces in cannon-mounted armored vehicles took up positions in and around the runway, backed by helicopters clattering overhead. At one point the French briefly squared off against Ivory Coast forces -- rifles locked, loaded and aimed.
Two French soldiers were injured, one seriously, by rocks thrown by protesters, said a French military spokesman, Lt. Col. Philippe Perret.
France has 2,500 troops in Ivory Coast to protect more than 16,000 French civilians.
The day was one of the most eventful in a week of often-violent protests over a French-brokered deal to end Ivory Coast's 4-month-old civil war. Government loyalists -- including the protesters at the airport -- say the deal gives too much to rebels who control half the country.
The Jan. 24 peace deal puts rebels and the government into a power-sharing administration until 2005 elections. Loyalists have objected most strongly to unconfirmed rebel claims that the deal gives them control of Ivory Coast's military and paramilitary.
Rebel groups in the north and west accuse President Laurent Gbagbo of fanning ethnic hatred, and demand his resignation.
In Dakar, Senegal, West African leaders trying to salvage a country once seen as a model of stability and prosperity agreed to send a seven-member delegation Saturday to meet with Gbagbo in Abidjan. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said Gbagbo asked fellow West African leaders to help him implement the peace deal.
Friday's protest began with a march on the airport in the commercial capital of Abidjan. French families have been flocking to the airport, after days of attacks on France's embassy, military base and other foreign targets.
Wrapped in the orange, green, and white colors of Ivory Coast's flag, rioters rushed the terminal, and then the tarmac, blowing whistles.
"Go home and don't come back!" the protesters screamed as French families grabbed their bags and rushed into the airport. "Idiots!" rioters yelled at the ducking, crouching French.
Perret said the rioters terrorized passengers, stealing suitcases and handbags.
While Ivory Coast police pleaded with rioters to leave, French forces arrived. Four French troop helicopters landed on the tarmac. French soldiers spilled out, rushing to secure the tarmac even as protesters set fire to the French flag.
More French forces rolled up in armored vehicles with mounted cannon, taking up posts on the tarmac, airport perimeter and the main road in and out.
French and Ivorian forces prodded protesters off the tarmac after 45 minutes. Outside, militants continued to harass vehicles traveling to and from the airport.
At one point, French soldiers and Ivory Coast forces faced off -- former colonial ruler and subjects, training rifles, locked and loaded, on each other.
The allies' armed standoff started when a line of 100 French directed their firearms on rioters, trying to stop them from hurling stones onto them over the heads of Ivorian solders.
At the sound of French firearms locking behind them, the 120-member cadre of Ivorian forces spun around.
Rioters cheered as some Ivorians aimed their rifles at the French forces. Travelers inside the terminals ran away from the glass fronts.
The standoff ended after a minute or so, with no shots fired. French and Ivory Coast officers moved to the nearby French military base for talks -- trying to mend a previously unthinkable rift after decades of close military and financial partnership.
Earlier, Ivory Coast Defense Minister Bertin Kadet sought to calm the protesters, assuring them, "I have asked the French military to evacuate the area in order to pacify the crowd."
French forces did not immediately comply. "One thing is sure, we'll be at the airport as long as French nationals are there," French Cmdr. Frederic Thomazo said.
By day's end, however, French forces had moved out of sight at the airport, but held positions on the road leading into it.
Flights suspended during the confrontation resumed. Air France said it would use bigger planes and another flight each day to get the fleeing French out.