Wednesday, November 10, 2004

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Security forces fired on armed attackers yesterday as thousands of angry government loyalists massed outside a French evacuation post for foreigners, reportedly killing seven persons and wounding 200 in violence pitting France against its former prize colony.

Denying any responsibility, France’s military said loyalist demonstrators opened fire as a French convoy left the post, and Ivorian security forces returned fire.

The bloodletting erupted at a one-time luxury hotel French forces have commandeered as an evacuation center for 1,300 French and other foreigners rescued from rampages across the commercial capital, Abidjan.

An Associated Press photographer saw the bodies of three demonstrators outside a hospital, their bodies draped in Ivorian flags.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, sent by the 53-nation African Union to find a political solution to the crisis, said before the shooting that Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has recommitted to carrying out tension-easing measures agreed to in past accords in the country’s two-year-old civil war.

The U.N. Security Council late yesterday gave wide support to a resolution that would impose sanctions against Ivory Coast if the country’s government and rebels don’t return to a peace process by the beginning of December, diplomats said.

“It’s much more effective if you hold a gun to their head, rather than pull the trigger,” said Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram.

The chaos in Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer and West Africa’s former economic powerhouse, broke out Saturday when Ivory Coast warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an air strike on the rebel-held north.

France wiped out the nation’s air force on the tarmac in retaliation, sparking anti-French rampages by thousands in the fiercely nationalist south.

The French set up their evacuation center Monday a few hundred yards from the home of Mr. Gbagbo, and the site has become a flash point for violence.

French forces opened fire yesterday as thousands pressed around the center in protest, witnesses said.

It was not clear what sparked the clash. The French military refused comment, saying it was trying to determine what happened.

Abidjan’s Cocody Hospital received seven dead and more than 200 wounded, said Dr. Sie Podipte, the emergency-room chief.

Four days of confrontations have killed at least 20 others, wounded 700 and shut down cocoa exports.

On Monday, Ivory Coast and French generals called on protesters to go home after state radio and TV had urged them to mass at Mr. Gbagbo’s home and a nearby broadcast center.

French leaders have said they hold Mr. Gbagbo — installed by his supporters in 2000 after an aborted vote count in presidential elections — responsible for Saturday’s air strike and subsequent anti-foreigner rampages.

France has 4,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, where a civil war begun in September 2002 has left the country split between rebel north and loyalist south. About 6,000 U.N. troops are also deployed in a buffer zone.

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