- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast Heavily armed French forces in armored vehicles and helicopters took control of Ivory Coast's international airport yesterday, after thousands of rock-throwing demonstrators attacked fleeing French citizens.

Members of the mob angry over concessions in a French-brokered peace deal for the West African nation invaded the airport, storming the tarmac and taunting French passengers trying to escape the troubled former French colony.

At least two French soldiers were injured by rocks, one seriously, French military spokesman Lt. Col. Philippe Perret said. Rioters terrorized passengers, stealing suitcases and handbags, he said.

"Go home and don't come back," the protesters screamed at families as they grabbed their bags and rushed into the airport.

The White House yesterday endorsed a French-brokered accord to end the Ivory Coast's 4-month-old civil war, even as the peace deal sparked massive rioting.

The deal is known as the Marcoussis accord, named for a small town south of Paris. It provided for the creation of a government based on power sharing, with the current president remaining in power until 2005 elections.

"The United States welcomes the signing of the Marcoussis accord by all parties involved in the Cote d'Ivoire conflict," read a written statement issued by the press secretary's office. "We believe that the accord must be implemented without delay to bring an end to the violence in Cote d'Ivoire."

The airport clash comes after days of often-violent protests by government loyalists. Government supporters are angry over a peace deal closed Jan. 24 in Paris that they say yields too much power to Ivory Coast's rebels, who have seized more than half the country in the civil war.

About 5,000 protesters massed at the airport by midmorning, and numbers of them held the tarmac for about 45 minutes.

The chaos prevented some passengers from boarding flights, while others were trapped inside planes and in the departure hall of the airport.

At the peak, Ivorian paramilitary troops and police sought to convince the whistle-blowing protesters mostly young men dressed in the orange, green and white colors of the West African nation's flag to leave.

Minutes later, four French military helicopters touched down on the tarmac and soldiers spilled out, rushing to secure the area as several demonstrators set a French flag on fire.

French forces in a dozen armored vehicles mounted with cannon took up posts on the airport perimeter and the main airport road.

The demonstration broke out early yesterday morning to protest the scheduled arrival of Ivorian Seydou Diarra, slated to be the new prime minister under the now-threatened peace deal.

Demonstrators said that they'd gathered to "keep Diarra from touching Ivory Coast soil."

Mr. Diarra, at midday, remained in Dakar, Senegal, where West African leaders gathered to search for a resolution to the crisis in Ivory Coast.

Representatives of Ivory Coast's northern-based rebels also joined the talks.

Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa exporter, was once a stable African powerhouse. A 1999 military coup, its first ever, ended decades of stability. Ethnic and political violence culminated in another coup attempt in September and subsequent civil war.

Rebels in the north and west accuse President Laurent Gbagbo of fanning ethnic hatred, and demand his resignation.

France has 2,500 troops based in the country to protect more than 16,000 French civilians. Paris sent another 130 paramilitary police Thursday as violence welled against its citizens.

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