Wednesday was the third day of protests that have rocked the main city in the world’s top cocoa grower.
The youths want 4000 French soldiers to quit a ceasefire line between the rebel-held north and government-held south of the former French colony which plunged into civil war last year.
About 100 police, armed with assault rifles, blocked roads around the heavily fortified base in Abidjan, facing hundreds of protesters who braved a government ban on demonstrations announced late on Tuesday.
“I am not here for an anti-French demonstration. I am here so that the French army forces the rebels to disarm. Or else let them (the French) leave the front line so that the Ivorian army can free the country,” said firebrand student leader Charles Ble Goude, a confidante of President Laurent Gbagbo.
The protests and weekend demands by renegade soldiers for the French to leave have fed fears that fighting could again erupt in Ivory Coast, an economic powerhouse and home to millions of immigrants from impoverished neighbouring countries.
Although the war was declared over in July, Ivory Coast is still divided and frustrations are mounting on both sides as a limbo state of neither war nor peace persists, crippling the economy and raising fears of regional instability.
The conflict has also inflamed anti-French sentiment as both sides accuse French soldiers, deployed on the ceasefire line along with 1300 West African troops, of supporting the enemy.
“If it’s rotten, we’ll kill the French,” shouted a group of protesters on Wednesday.
French schools shut
TV shot of armed men interrupting
French schools were closed on Wednesday for the first time since the protests erupted on Monday. Other foreign embassies told their nationals to avoid the area around the base, which is located near the airport in Abidjan.
The police tried to disperse the crowd by blasting tear gas grenades, temporarily scattering the youths who fled into nearby markets and residential areas. Some youths set fire to market stalls as they ran, chased by helmeted police.
Goude, who called the protest, arrived later and lay on a mattress covered in a white sheet in front of the base’s gates, after crossing police lines. One of his supporters shaded him with a parasol.
“I am not leaving here until I’ll have a precise answer,” he said.
Rumours of a resumption in hostilities have gripped Ivory Coast since renegade army officers demanded in a televised address to the nation on Sunday that French troops should quit the ceasefire line so they could clear out rebels in the north.
France has ruled out withdrawing its troops.
Gbagbo said in an interview published in a French newspaper on Tuesday that he wanted the troops to stay, but that he understood the protesters’ and army’s frustration.