French send army into Ivory Coast capital

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The Independent Online

In what was developing into one of the most high-profile French army interventions on foreign soil for years, 700 troop reinforcements sent to Ivory Coast had last night stationed 50 armoured vehicles and tanks in the country's main city, Abidjan.

The move by the former colonial power was in retaliation for the killing on Saturday of nine French peacekeepers by Ivorian government forces.

Supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo claimed that France wished to overthrow him but President Jacques Chirac insisted the enhanced military deployment was aimed at "reassuring French and foreign interests in Ivory Coast".

On the ground, French white nationals in Abidjan told reporters by telephone that they were terrified of reprisals by so-called Young Patriots who support President Gbagbo's anti-European rhetoric. At least a dozen French nationals - among about 14,000 registered in the West African country - were unaccounted for after the weekend of violence. Others had reportedly been plucked from rooftops in Abidjan by French army helicopters.

Journalists in the capital said the situation was tense. They could not confirm whether looting had continued on French-owned businesses and interests, but believed a televised appeal for calm late on Sunday by President Gbagbo was being respected. The Red Cross estimated that about 400 people had been injured in Abidjan since Saturday.

Last night, in a sign that the situation was being brought under control, French army officials and Ivorian military and government officials met in the capital. At the same time in New York, French diplomats asked the United Nations security council to consider a draft proposal for selective sanctions against Mr Gbagbo.

The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, is expected in Ivory Coast tomorrow, to help relaunch a peace plan agreed at the end of July.

Ivory Coast, which is the world's leading cocoa producer, has been split in two since a coup attempt in September 2002. The northern half of the country is occupied by New Forces rebels, whereas the south is controlled by the government. French and United Nations peacekeepers guard checkpoints along the divide.

President Gbagbo, an unelected leader, has been resisting the French-brokered peace plan, which hinges on incorporating New Forces representatives into his government, for nearly two years. Instead, he has accused France of attempting to force him to share power.

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