French troops clash with Ivory Coast soldiers, mobs
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – French troops clashed with soldiers and angry mobs Saturday after Ivory Coast warplanes killed at least nine French peacekeepers and an American civilian in an airstrike – mayhem that threatened to draw foreign troops deeper into the West African country’s escalating civil war.
France hit back, destroying what it said was the entire Ivory Coast air force – two Russian-made Sukhoi jets used in the bombing and five helicopter gunships. France scrambled three Mirage fighter jets to West Africa and ordered about 300 troops to ready for deployment in Ivory Coast.
Mob violence erupted in Ivory Coast’s national commercial capital, Abidjan, upon France’s retaliation, sending thousands of angry loyalists armed with machetes, axes and clubs out into the streets in fiery rampages in search of French targets.
“French go home!” loyalist mobs shouted, as thousands set fire to at least two French schools and tried to storm a French military base, seeking out French civilians as French and Ivory Coast forces briefly traded gunfire.
“Everybody get your Frenchman!” young men screamed to each other, swinging machetes.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo would be “held personally responsible by the international community for (maintaining) the public order in Abidjan.”
The U.N. Security Council, convening in emergency session, demanded an immediate halt to all military action in Ivory Coast and emphasized that U.N. and French forces here were authorized to use “all necessary means” to keep the peace.
France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said he will draft a resolution to impose an arms embargo on Ivory Coast. Paris also will seek to impose U.N. sanctions against those blocking the peace process, violating human rights and preventing the disarmament of fighters, he said.
Hard-liners in Ivory Coast’s military broke a more than year-old cease-fire, launching surprise airstrikes Thursday against rebel positions and vowing to retake the northern part of the country held by rebels since the civil war began in 2002.
Government officials said Saturday’s airstrike that hit a French peacekeeper position was an accident – but the violence highlighted the nationalist fervor in the pro-government south.
Many there resent the French troops, suspecting them of siding with rebels, even though the peacekeepers have protected government troops in the past. France has about 4,000 troops in Ivory Coast, and a separate U.N. peacekeeping force numbers around 6,000.
A French defense ministry spokesman said on condition of anonymity that the United States had shown “great understanding about France’s concerns in Ivory Coast.” But he did not know whether U.S. military assistance had been sought.
The U.N. force includes thousands of West African troops, with the rest coming from an array of contributing nations, none American.
Saturday’s violence began when government warplanes struck French positions at Brobo, near the northern town of Bouake, U.N. military spokesman Philippe Moreux said.
Eight French soldiers were killed and 30 others wounded, French Defense Ministry spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau said in Paris. An American citizen also was killed in the raid, the French presidency said without elaborating.
A ninth French soldier died of his wounds, de La Sabliere said in New York.
Council diplomats said the American who was killed was believed to have worked for a non-governmental organization and to have been at the French base.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Ergibe Boyd in Abidjan said diplomats have not confirmed the death. She said the American likely was a missionary since there is no U.S. military or diplomatic presence in the area.
In response to the strike, French infantry destroyed the Sukhoi fighter jets at the airport in Yamoussoukro, 75 miles to the south, French military spokesman Col. Henry Aussavy said. The jets were believed to be the ones that carried out Saturday’s strike and two earlier days of bombings of rebel-held towns.
More explosions rocked the capital after dark, apparently as French helicopters swept in to destroy the five helicopters. The French forces “realized the objective assigned to it of neutralizing the Ivorian aircrafts,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
France sent three Mirage fighter jets nearby Gabon, and French President Jacques Chirac said he ordered the deployment of two more military companies to Ivory Coast.
The Security Council authorized U.N. and French troops patrolling a zone dividing the north from the south “to prevent any hostile action” and condemned any attempt to send forces through the zone.
In Abidjan, French troops fired in the air and shot tear gas to hold back massive mobs trying to overrun the main French military base.
French and Ivory Coast troops traded gunfire on the tarmac of the international airport, as Ivory Coast troops tried to destroy French aircraft there in retaliation.
A French soldier was slightly injured and an airplane was lightly damaged before negotiations ended the clash, French spokesman Jacques Combarieu said.
Thousands went house to house seeking out French civilians, Aussavy said.
At least three French families called French authorities to say loyalist militias had stormed their homes, a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
There was no immediate word on any civilian casualties.
Ivory Coast’s government was alternately conciliatory and challenging.
Presidential spokesman Desire Tagro said on state TV: “The president asks all Ivorians to remain calm … French and foreigners settled in Ivory Coast are not responsible for the Ivorian crisis. We mustn’t bring the war here.”
State TV also aired loyalist leaders calling for a march on the French military base and other targets Sunday.
“We are at war. France attacked us,” unidentified people said in one of many such broadcasts late Saturday.
A senior member of Ivory Coast’s government – Sebastien Dano Djeje, Cabinet member for National Reconciliation – said the bombing of the French position in the north “was a mistake. We didn’t aim to hit them.”
Djeje added, however: “But what proves it was Ivorian planes? We have to do an investigation.”
Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer, was the pride of France’s former colonial empire for prosperous decades after independence in 1960. A downturn in commodities prices and political change in the 1990s encouraged instability, and the country suffered its first-ever military coup in 1999.
Turmoil and regional, ethnic and political hatreds have reigned since. Civil war erupted in September 2002. A power-sharing deal brokered by the French ended major fighting in 2003, but otherwise failed to take hold.
Associated Press reporters Daniel Balint-Kurti in Abuja, Nigeria; Pauline Bax in Yamoussoukro; Jamey Keaten and Samantha Bordes in Paris; and Associated Press photographer Schalk van Zuydam in Yamoussoukro contributed to this report.