UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
COTE D IVOIRE: France denies trying to topple President, diplomatic efforts continue
ABIDJAN, 8 Nov 2004 (IRIN) - France sought on Monday to reassure thousands of angry Ivorian demonstrators that it was not trying to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, after a weekend of mob violence forced more than 2,000 foreigners to flee their homes.
As French troops tried to restore calm to the streets of the West African nation, French diplomats scurried to push a resolution through the UN Security Council that would impose penalties on Cote d'Ivoire, while South African President Thabo Mbeki prepared to fly into Abidjan to kick-start the battered peace process.
Ivorian youths began setting fire to French schools and businesses, looting homes and threatening foreigners on Saturday after the French army destroyed almost the entire Ivorian air force in retaliation for the killing of nine of its peacekeepers in an aerial bombardment in the northern town of Bouake.
At least 2,050 foreign residents were sheltering in French and UN military bases in Abidjan on Monday, many having been plucked by helicopter from their homes as they came under attack from angry mobs, some armed with sticks, stones and machetes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said well over 400 people had been treated on Sunday, some for wounds from live ammunition and it appealed to be allowed to continue its activities unharmed.
Gbagbo made his first television appearance late Sunday, appealing to protesters to head home and not let themselves be provoked, but on Monday around 5,000 demonstrators lined up opposite French tanks stationed outside the Hotel Ivoire in the upmarket suburb of Cocody.
Screaming anti-French slogans and carrying banners branding the French assassins, the protesters rallied at the hotel following a morning appeal on state radio to form a human shield to protect Gbagbo, whose residence is nearby.
A diplomat at the hotel said French troops had fired shots in the air to disperse the protesters. Ivorian state television broadcast images of injured people getting to hospital. Over the weekend, it also showed the bodies of protesters who, it said, had been killed by French forces.
However it was unclear how many casualties there were.
"The situation is worrying, it could explode at any moment," another Western diplomat told IRIN. "Any negotiations about Ivorian politics is impossible at the moment. It's about lowering the tensions and calming the crisis."
Inside the hotel, French, UN and military officials met the Ivorian army's chief of staff Mathias Doue, and government representatives and agreed to organise joint patrols to help restore calm to the city, which was once the economic toast of West Africa.
In a televised press conference, all were keen to dismiss rumours inflaming passions in Abidjan that Paris was aiming to depose Gbagbo from power.
"He represents a legal government, elected by the people. Our only goal is to ensure the safety of the French and expatriate community and also that of all Abidjan residents; we are here to stop Abidjan falling into the hands of looters," General Henri Poncet of the French forces said.
Mamadou Koulibaly, the speaker of parliament and one of the most hardline members of Gbagbo's party, spoke in a similar vein on Monday despite having called people onto the streets just a day earlier.
"The French troops do not intend to stage a coup d'etat nor destabilise Cote d'Ivoire," he said. "The craziest rumours are those which make republics fall the fastest," he warned, urging people to calm down and get on with their normal lives.
Speaking in northern France, President Jacques Chirac added his voice to the chorus trying to reassure the Ivorian population.
"France is the friend of Cote d'Ivoire. We want the country to find the path to national reconciliation," he said.
But not all Gbagbo supporters were convinced, chief among them Charles Ble Goude, the leader of the Young Patriots militant group, who has proved to be a mobilising force in the past.
"I have no confidence in the French army. They should return to their barracks, leave the bridges and give us back our airport," he told French radio.
Meanwhile in New York, French diplomats called for penalties, including an arms embargo to be imposed on France's former colony, which has been split into a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south since September 2002.
The Ivorian army violated an 18-month ceasefire last Thursday by bombing rebel strongholds, with the attacks continuing on Friday before the French troops, 4,000 of whom patrol the ceasefire zone alongside 6,000 UN peacekeepers, fell victim on Saturday.
"The Security Council... decides that all states shall, for an initial period of 12 months... take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Cote d'Ivoire... of arms or any other material, in particular military aircraft," a draft of the resolution obtained by IRIN read.
The draft resolution, which French diplomats at the UN hoped would pass on Monday, also provides for travel bans and the freezing of funds for individuals who block the implementation of a 2003 French-brokered peace deal, known as the Linas-Marcoussis agreement.
Before last week's government military offensive Cote d'Ivoire had been locked in political deadlock for months. The government was supposed to pass a series of political reforms, including a controversial amendment to the constitution to widen the pool of those eligible to become president and the rebels were supposed to start disarming in mid-October. But each side dug in their heels, each blaming the other for the failure of the peace plan.
It is this impasse, now further complicated by the popular violence and high tempers in Cote d'Ivoire, that South African President Thabo Mbeki must try to bridge.
"He will be there tomorrow," presidential spokesman Bheki Khumalo told IRIN by phone on Monday. "He should be there for one day only and his first port of call is President Gbagbo."
Mbeki, who has brokered peace deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, was given his mandate by the African Union.
Some diplomats said letting African leaders try to mediate the path to peace might be a good move and prevent charges of former colonial powers interfering.
But others pointed out that the recommendations from a meeting of African leaders in July in Accra, Ghana, had been ignored and many cast doubt on just what political headway could be made with the situation still volatile on the ground.
"We have two crises on our hands now. One between the government and the rebels and another between the government and France," a senior West African diplomat told IRIN. "I doubt that Mbeki will manage to achieve anything. I doubt even that he'll end up coming."
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