French 'kill seven' in Ivory Coast

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The Independent Online

French forces opened fire yesterday as thousands of angry government loyalists massed outside an evacuation post for foreigners, witnesses said. A hospital reported seven people killed and 200 wounded in a fourth day of chaotic violence pitting France against its former prize colony.

French forces opened fire yesterday as thousands of angry government loyalists massed outside an evacuation post for foreigners, witnesses said. A hospital reported seven people killed and 200 wounded in a fourth day of chaotic violence pitting France against its former prize colony.

The incident overshadowed the start of an African peace mission. It erupted at a one-time luxury hotel that French forces have commandeered as an rallying post for 1,300 French and other foreigners rescued from anti-French rampages across the largest city, Abidjan. It is only a few hundred yards from the home of President Laurent Gbagbo, and has become a rallying point for protests and flashpoint for continuing violence.

The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, earlier flew into the West African country. The arrival of Mr Mbeki - who does not speak French - was largely symbolic and intended to quickly restore confidence in a fragile peace process that aims to end two years of civil war. In a similar confidence-building measure, French and United Nations peacekeepers yesterday began joint patrols with Ivorian government troops.

The main airport, in the commercial capital Abidjan, remained closed to commercial flights and the UN repeated a call to the Ivorian government to restore electricity and water supplies to the rebel-held north of the country.

State radio yesterday continued to claim that French troops planned to storm the presidential residence. Radio announcers called on Mr Gbagbo's Young Patriot supporters to create a "human shield" around the building. Ahead of a formal burial ceremony in Paris today for the nine French soldiers who died last Saturday in the central Ivorian city of Bouaké, the French Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, told MPs that the men been the victims of a planned attack carried out by mercenaries from Belarus acting on the orders of the Ivorian government. "There is no ambiguity. The attack was no error. The mercenaries flying the Sukhoi fighter jets knew what they were doing,'' she said.

Since Saturday, France has added 700 soldiers and gendarmes to its 4,000-strong peacekeeping mission. Armoured vehicles and tanks have been positioned in strategic locations and, in a retaliatory attack on Sunday, French pilots destroyed the Ivorian air force - two Sukhoi jets and four helicopter gunships.

Making the French government's first statement on the crisis since the killing of the peacekeepers, the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said France had "three clear objectives - to protect foreign civilians, preserve the legitimacy of the state and stabilise the region".

The former French colony has been divided since a coup attempt in September 2002. The north is controlled by New Forces rebels and the south remains in government hands. Under the terms of the Marcoussis peace plan, which Mr Gbagbo signed in France in January last year, 10,000 French and UN peacekeepers guard checkpoints along the divide.

The peace plan, which remains the basic framework for a continuing negotiating process under the auspices of the African Union, envisages power sharing between Mr Gbagbo's government and the New Forces, and a presidential election next year.

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