Wed, Nov 10, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Ivory Coast loyalists face French troops in standoff

PROTESTS Thousands of President Laurent Gbagbo's supporters formed a human shield around his home amid rumors that French peacekeepers want to depose him

AP , ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST

Pro-government demonstrators with national flags protest in front of the French-commandeered Hotel Ivoire in the Ivory Coast capital Abidjan yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

Loyalists massed outside the home of Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo in a thousands-strong human shield, facing off against French armored vehicles in fear of an overthrow attempt as France clamps down on attacks in its one-time prize West African colony.

French and Ivory Coast military leaders issued joint appeals for calm on Monday in a third day of violent anti-French protests that the Red Cross said had injured well over 500 people. With French troops firing warning shots, two hospitals said they had received 250 injured and five dead in Monday's clashes alone, including at least three people shot dead.

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

UN Security Council diplomats opened consideration of sanctions and the African Union came out squarely in support of French and UN intervention, isolating Gbagbo in the tumult that began when his air force killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an airstrike on Saturday on Ivory Coast's rebel-held north. On Monday, French armored vehicles moved in around Gbagbo's home in Abidjan -- heightening supporters' suspicions of a move against the man French leaders say they hold personally responsible for the deadly bombing.

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

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

State radio and TV delivered urgent calls for loyalists to gather at Gbagbo's house and the nearby state broadcast center. 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.

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

One of the injured in Abidjan's Cocody hospital, Claude Akoun, said he and other demonstrators were shot by French soldiers near Gbagbo's residence, after they walked toward the troops, insulting them.

A standoff arose outside Abidjan as well, 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 UN officials telling reporters that more than 1,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Liberia. Guinea said it was sending military reinforcements to its own border.

French forces moved to take control of Abidjan after chaos erupted in this West African nation on Saturday, with what Ivory Coast leaders later called the mistaken bombing of a French military post.

France hit back immediately, 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.

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