Anti-French mood roils Ivory Coast

Mobs of government supporters looted French businesses and attacked French nationals Sunday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The smoldering civil war in Ivory Coast - a two-year, on-again off-again conflict between the government and northern rebels - began looking more like a battle between France and its former colony over the weekend.

French troops - deployed last year as part of a peacekeeping mission - destroyed much of the Ivorian Air Force Saturday in retaliation for a government bombing raid on the country's second-largest city of Bouake, in which France said nine of its troops were killed along with an unnamed American aid worker.

In response, Ivorian state television urged citizens to take to the streets, which they did with a vengeance, witnesses reported. French troops spent much of Saturday night and Sunday protecting French citizens from machete-wielding mobs in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

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The weekend violence underscores a growing anti-French sentiment that has been simmering of late, and according to Ivory Coast officials, throws into question France's role as a neutral peacekeeper.

"France has declared war on the Ivory Coast, that's how it looks to us," says Sery Bahi, a senior adviser to President Laurent Gbagbo, speaking by phone from Abidjan. He says Mr. Gbagbo is willing to have direct talks with French President Jacques Chirac. "We now know the real problem we have is not with the rebels but with France. We want to understand what is it the French government wants from us."

France is not trying to destabilize the Ivory Coast government but enforce security, the French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said in a statement.

Ivory Coast's latest spiral into violence has been a quick one. Last Thursday, after months of a quiet but tense peace, the government launched airstrikes on the north of the country, held for the past two years by rebels known as the New Forces. Government jets then bombed the French military post on Saturday.

An emergency UN Security Council meeting in New York condemned the bombing raid as a violation of the May 2003 cease-fire and gave the 10,000-strong peacekeeping force permission to use "all necessary means" to stop the fighting. Some 4,000 French troops are deployed in Ivory Coast in a somewhat unconventional arrangement in which they are both part of and separate from the UN peacekeeping force. Mr. Chirac ordered the retaliatory strikes, which officials said destroyed two Ivorian jet fighters and three attack helicopters.

The Security Council ought to be taking action against France, Gbagbo's spokesman Desire Tagro said on state television. "We are going to inform the entire world ... that France has come to attack us," Mr. Tagro declared.

The anti-French feeling has been building in Ivory Coast since dissident soldiers, largely from the north, launched an uprising against the government in September 2002. Gbagbo, his political supporters, and partisan media outlets whipped up nationalist sentiment against France and immigrants from neighboring countries by accusing them of supporting the rebels.

Even after Ivory Coast declared its independence in 1960, France maintained a major degree of control over the economy. Some 20,000 expatriates lived in the country until 2002 and owned some 600 businesses, many in key industries such as shipping and cocoa. France also propped up the long-serving strongman president, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, whose death in 1993 caused a power struggle that ultimately led to the upheaval of recent years.

Sunday, France flew two companies of fresh troops into Abidjan airport, which its forces had seized a day earlier. Ivorian government and military officials said loyalist forces would pull back into a buffer zone patrolled by the peacekeeping force, news agencies reported.

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