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Ivory Coast loyalists confront French

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Thousands of government loyalists massed outside the home of Ivory Coast's president Monday, facing off against French armored vehicles in response to urgent appeals for a "human shield" around the hard-line leader, amid fears of an overthrow.

French and Ivory Coast military leaders, appearing together on state television, appealed for calm following three days of violent protests the Red Cross said had wounded more than 500 people. Two hospitals reported five dead and 250 wounded in Monday's clashes alone.

The Ivorian army said it would start joint patrols in Abidjan, the commercial capital, with French and U.N. peacekeepers.

The U.N. Security Council met to consider sanctions and the African Union came out in support of French and U.N. intervention, isolating President Laurent Gbagbo.

Chaos erupted Saturday when his air force killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an airstrike on Ivory Coast's rebel-held north. The government later called the bombing a mistake, which France rejected.

On Monday, French armored vehicles moved in around Gbagbo's home in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan.

"Their presence here is scaring people. They're crying and they think that President Gbagbo is going to be overthrown," presidential spokesman Desire Tagro said.

The French denied surrounding the house or intending to oust Gbagbo, saying forces only were securing a temporary base at a hotel a few hundred yards away for about 1,300 foreigners who had taken refuge at a French military base.

"Everything should go back to normal," French mission commander Gen. Henri Poncet said on state TV, alongside Ivory Coast chief of army staff Gen. Matthias Doue. "It is absolutely not a matter of ousting President Laurent Gbagbo."

State radio and TV, however, delivered urgent calls for loyalists to gather at Gbagbo's house.

Thousands responded, chanting against the French: "The whites don't like the blacks, but we don't care!" Some signs declared, "Ivory Coast is a sovereign state."

The crowd swarmed one foreigner -- by appearance an immigrant from a neighboring northern country -- caught up in their midst, kicking and beating him. "Kill him," young men shouted, before he was dragged into the crowd.

Six men, faces painted black, forced an AP reporter from his taxi at gunpoint and commandeered the vehicle.

French forces fired warning shots, witnesses and protesters said. Doctors said many of those treated Monday had been trampled trying to get away, although they reported removing bullets from several wounded.

French military spokesman Col. Henry Aussavy said he knew of no one shot by French forces. Ivory Coast security forces also have moved forcefully at times against the loyalists.

Red Cross official Kim Gordon-Bates said the casualty toll since Saturday had climbed to "over 500 wounded -- much more than that." Loyalist mobs were blocking efforts to set up an emergency clinic for the injured, he said.

A standoff arose outside Abidjan, as several hundred loyalist youths stood on a main road, blocking a 70-vehicle heavily armed convoy of French reinforcements trying to enter the city.

Tensions crossed Ivory Coast's borders, with U.N. officials telling AP that more than 1,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Liberia. Guinea, to the north, said it was sending military reinforcements to its border.

After Saturday's airstrike on the French military post, France hit back, wiping out Ivory Coast's newly built-up air force -- two Russian-made Sukhoi jet fighters and at least three helicopter gunships -- on the ground.

Machete-waving mobs sought revenge against French targets. With armored vehicles and helicopter gunships deployed, France used tear gas and concussion grenades to quell the mobs.

On Monday, residents assessed the damage to a skyscraper-lined city that once was West Africa's most prosperous -- thanks to Ivory Coast's position as the world's top cocoa producer.

"Everything is burned," said one woman, a teacher at a French school that was looted and torched in the anti-French riots. "They have stolen everything they could."

French military planes flew home the bodies Monday of the nine French soldiers killed in the bombing, along with 34 wounded soldiers.

France has more than 4,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, helping a 6,000-man U.N. force uphold what had been a more than one-year cease-fire in a civil war that broke out in September 2002. The cease-fire ended last week when the government opened three days of bombing of the rebel north.

In Paris, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie rejected claims the strike on the French post was a mistake and demanded reopening of peace talks.

The European Union, African Union and a West African leaders bloc all condemned Ivory Coast's attack Saturday.

At the United Nations, a draft Security Council resolution circulated Monday called for an arms embargo on Ivory Coast and a travel ban and asset freeze against those blocking peace, violating human rights and preventing the disarmament of combatants.

South African President Thabo Mbeki was heading to Ivory Coast on Tuesday for emergency talks.

For decades, Ivory Coast was the economic powerhouse and stabilizing force in West Africa, until an economic downturn and growing political unrest opened the way for its first-ever coup in 1999. Gbagbo was installed amid an uprising by his supporters the next year, during an aborted vote count for the first post-coup presidential elections.


Associated Press reporter Nafi Diouf in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.


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