Sun, Nov 14, 2004 - Page 6 News List

French defend Ivorian tactics


France defended itself against accusations by Ivory Coast authorities -- and some Western evacuees -- that it used excessive force to protect foreigners against violent mobs during five days of upheaval in its former West African colony.

Ivorian government forces, meanwhile, pulled back from rebel positions, easing fears of a resumption of all-out civil war, as France and other countries continued to fly out thousands of foreigners.

The head of France's armed forces, General Henri Bentegeat, acknowledged for the first time Friday that his soldiers in Ivory Coast opened fire to hold back what he called a "pack of looters, rapists and uncontrollable or manipulated people" attacking foreigners in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

But he told Europe-1 radio the soldiers did "the absolute minimum" in self-defense. He claimed "a very large number" of casualties were killed by gunmen in the crowds.

At least three European women were raped during the rioting, Catherine Rechenmann, a representative of the French community in Ivory Coast told France-Inter radio.

Ivory Coast's national reconciliation minister, Dano Djedje, reacted angrily to Bentegeat's comments. "France has used extreme violence against unarmed demonstrators ... and they should take responsibility for it," he told reporters.

Ivory Coast presidential spokesman Desire Tagro claimed Friday that 62 loyalists had died in the turmoil unleashed Nov. 6 by an Ivory Coast airstrike on French peacekeepers in the rebel-held north. Nine peacekeepers and an American aid worker died in the airstrike.

France responded by wiping out the country's newly built-up air force, sparking an uprising by loyalist youths in the south who took to the streets of Abidjan and other cities armed with machetes, iron bars and clubs. France and other nations began flying out foreigners Wednesday.

By midday Friday, 2,192 of the 14,000 French citizens here had left the country along with scores from Spain, Germany, the United States and other countries, French officials said. The British Defense Ministry said two Royal Air Force planes carried about 200 people to safety in nearby Ghana.

President Laurent Gbagbo's office issued a statement Friday urging foreigners to stay and saying it was taking steps to assure their safety.

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