Foreigners flee Ivory Coast fighting

About 100 foreigners threatened by rioting and looting have taken shelter at French military barracks near Abidjan's international airport, a French military spokesman said on Sunday.

    A French school was set alight by rioters

    Earlier, three people were reported to have been shot dead as tens of thousands of Ivorians marched on the airport, controlled by French troops since a government air raid on Saturday killed nine French peacekeepers and a US civilian.

    Colonel Henry Aussavy said demonstrators were surrounding the marine infantry camp where the foreigners had sought refuge, and that French troops were attempting to disperse them with tear gas.

    "The situation is not easy, but it it is under control," said Aussavy, the spokesman for France's 4000-member Unicorn peacekeeping force in the divided west African country.

    Aussavy said the foreigners, of various nationalities, sought protection from the French because they had been attacked or their property had been looted.

    French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has ruled out early evacuation of the 14,000 French nationals, most of whom live in Abidjan.

    Demonstrations

    President Jacques Chirac ordered the destruction of Ivorian aircraft involved in ceasefire violations, and Aussavy said the last two Russian-built MI-24 helicopters in the Ivory Coast air force had been "neutralised".

    The French troops barred all civilian traffic at the international airport, and Aussavy said it was impossible to say when it would be allowed to resume.

    Gbagbo supporters urge on the
    anti-French demonstrators

    The troops opened fire as tens of thousands of demonstrators supporting President Laurent Gbagbo tried to march on the international airport, according to state radio.

    Ivorian parliament speaker Mamadou Coulibaly said earlier that more than 30 people were killed in the clash on Saturday, which was denied by a French defence ministry spokesman.

    French helicopters fired warning shots to head off the demonstrators, and erected heavy 20mm machine guns near the Houphouet-Boigny and Charles de Gaulle bridges on the lagoon linking working-class and business districts with the airport.

    France has also announced it is sending 300 extra troops to Ivory

    Coast and has positioned three Mirage jet fighters in nearby Gabon.

    Alliot-Marie said France held Gbagbo

    personally responsible for ensuring order, though she ruled out

    early evacuation of French nationals.

    Ceasefire deal

    Overnight on Saturday the government in Paris secured the unanimous

    condemnation of the attacks by Gbagbo's forces at the UN Security

    Council which met in New York, and said it would push for tougher

    action including an arms embargo.

    Chirac ordered the destruction of
    the Ivorian air force

    France helped secure a ceasefire deal

    in January 2002, with the aim of

    setting up a national unity government and ending the rebellion by

    anti-Gbagbo forces in the north and west of the country.

    However, the peace process has remained a dead letter, with the

    country divided in two along a line patrolled by 10,000 French and

    UN troops.

    A week ago the rebels, now known as the New Forces,

    declared a state of "maximum alert" and Gbagbo's air force launched

    a series of air raids.

    Analysts said the spiralling violence left French forces and

    citizens dangerously exposed, as they are seen by Gbagbo loyalists

    as having taken the decision to side with the opposition.

    But in rebel-held areas the same French forces are accused of helping the government.

    SOURCE: AFP


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