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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Sunday 7 November 2004

COTE D IVOIRE: Militants rampage in Abidjan, foreigners airlifted from homes

ABIDJAN, 7 Nov 2004 (IRIN) - Militant supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo rampaged through Abidjan's streets overnight, looting and burning French homes, schools and businesses and forcing France's military to airlift more than 150 foreigners to safety and send in troops to restore calm.

The violence erupted in Cote d'Ivoire's commercial capital after France destroyed almost the entire airforce of its former colony, following the Ivorian army's bombardment of a French base in the north. Nine French peacekeepers and one American civilian died in Saturday's bombing on the rebel town of Bouake.

Pro-Gbagbo militants, some wielding machetes and sticks, set fire to three French schools and the offices of the Orange mobile phone company. French-owned restaurants, hotels and homes were also looted as militant leader Charles Ble Goude called on his Young Patriots group to "go and liberate Cote d'Ivoire".

"They broke everything in the house. They took everything they could, and everything else is ruined or destroyed," Viviane, a French resident in the upmarket suburb of Cocody, told IRIN on Sunday. "My husband is French, he has a business and these people apparently knew that."

Across town, Marc, a French artist, was holed up in his house and worried about whether he had enough food supplies.

"I will go back to France as soon as this is all over," he told IRIN.

The United Nations Mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI) on Sunday raised its security level across the whole country to Phase Four, the last phase before evacuation, a spokesman said.

Phase Four enables security chiefs on the ground to recommend the relocation outside the country of all international staff except those concerned with emergency or humanitarian relief operations or security matters.

Helicopter evacuations as mobs descend

The French embassy in Cote d'Ivoire said helicopters had plucked more than 150 foreigners of various nationalities from their homes and they were now camped out at the French military base in Abidjan. In the port city of San Pedro to the west, another 12 people had been evacuated, the embassy said.

Sporadic gunfire could still be heard in parts of Abidjan on Sunday and residents said youths carrying mattresses, computers and bulging bags were making off with their loot as Ivorian police looked on.

France already has 4,000 troops in its former West African colony but on Sunday the defence ministry said it was sending in 600 men as reinforcements.

"This morning France reinforced its contingent in Cote d'Ivoire with 300 soldiers from forces already in Gabon. Three airbuses... also left from our airbase in Istres early afternoon, taking another 300 men," the ministry said in a statement.

French armoured vehicles rolled through the streets of Abidjan on Sunday, while military boats patrolled the lagoon, and armed soldiers rolled out barbed wire across the city's two key bridges, witnesses said.

In an emergency session in New York on Saturday, the UN Security Council condemned the attack on the French. It also authorized the French troops along with 6,000 UN peacekeepers in the country to use all necessary force.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Gbagbo to end the violence immediately.

"It is important that the President calms the population so that they stop violent demonstrations," Annan told reporters.

An uneasy ceasefire had reigned in the West African country since May 2003, but it was abruptly broken on Thursday when Ivorian warplanes started bombing the rebel-stronghold of Bouake. The offensive continued on Friday with towns to the east and west being hit, and ground troops moving north.

Ivorian troops pull back

The Ivorian presidential spokesman, Desire Tagro, told IRIN on Sunday that the army had called off its northern offensive on the rebels, which had also included forays into the Zone of Confidence, a buffer zone that has divided the government-controlled south from the rebel-held north since September 2002.

But Tagro also blasted the French for overreacting to Saturday's bombing.

"We think the reaction from the French was disproportionate," he said. "Ivorians suspect France is trying to destabilise Cote d?'Ivoire."

He said four people had been killed when French helicopters fired warning shots as thousands of people marched towards the airport, and many others had been injured.

Pascal Affi-Nguessan, head of Gbagbo?'s party and a former prime minister, was even fiercer, calling for the immediate departure of all French troops from the country and for his countrymen to take to the streets.

"France has decided to ride over our independence and to drag our dignity and sovereignty through the mud," he told state television. "We must fight to defend our honour and our dignity."

In Paris, France's defence minister denied the suggestion that the former colonial power was trying to do anything other than protect its citizens.

France, the UN and the African Union all called on the Ivorian parties to concentrate their efforts on finding a political solution,

The AU, which held a meeting in Nigeria on Saturday to discuss the trouble in Cote d'Ivoire, said in a statement that it had mandated South African President Thabo Mbeki to help mediate a peaceful solution to the crisis, which many analysts say poses threats to the whole West African region.


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