Ivory Coast accuses France of 'acts of war'

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The Independent Online

The Ivory Coast President, Laurent Gbagbo, has boycotted African Union peace talks aimed at ending the violence in his country, and opened a war of words with the French President, Jacques Chirac.

The Ivory Coast President, Laurent Gbagbo, has boycotted African Union peace talks aimed at ending the violence in his country, and opened a war of words with the French President, Jacques Chirac.

Mr Gbagbo sent the National Assembly speaker, Mamadou Koulibaly, to yesterday's emergency summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, which was attended by leaders of other west African countries, including Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal and Togo.

Mr Gbagbo's spokesman, Desire Tagro, said: "The country is in crisis. He prefers to be here [in Ivory Coast], to be ready for any eventuality. Of course, he will be following what happens." President Gbagbo is not believed to have left his mansion in Abidjan since fighting with rebels in the north of the country began on 6 November. He has been guarded by the pro-government Young Patriots, who have clashed with French troops and attacked French-owned homes and businesses.

The French government has made it clear that it holds President Gbagbo personally responsible for the violence, which has led to most Westerners leaving the country. They have also criticised his nationalist policies, which have whipped up a distrust of the country's many foreign workers.

President Chirac said yesterday that he would not withdraw French troops from the Ivory Coast, in veiled but direct criticism of the Ivorian government. He told a student forum in Marseilles: "We do not want to let a system develop that could lead to anarchy, or a regime of a fascist nature." He insisted France had the support of the UN and other African countries.

In an interview with a British newspaper on Sunday, Mr Gbagbo accused France of "acts of war" by destroying the country's air force, two Sukhoi jet fighters and four or five helicopters. France's action, he said, meant that "objectively, France supports the rebels, because the French destroyed our advantage in less than two hours".

Ivory Coast has been split since rebels seized the north of the country in September 2002. An 18-month ceasefire ended this month, when the government launched air raids on the north, killing nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker. French troops retaliated by destroying the air force, provoking riots by pro-government supporters.

Although much of the violence has abated, the country is still far from stable. On Saturday, President Gbagbo sacked his moderate army chief of staff General Matthias Doue and replaced him with the more hardline Colonel Philip Mangou, the commander responsible for launching attacks on the rebel-held north of the country early this month.

President Gbagbo said he would buy new warplanes to replace those destroyed by the French. He said on radio yesterday, he said: "Do you think I am going to leave my country with no air defence? If the French army destroys them [the replacements], we'll buy more for a third time."

Residents of the rebel-held north of the country have said they will march on Abidjan today and demand President Gbagbo's resignation, but they will first have to cross the UN buffer zone into the government-controlled area.

More than 5,000 Europeans have left Ivory Coast, including about 200 Britons protected by 400 Gurkhas and SAS, and hundreds more are preparing to go. Most of those leaving are French, but hundreds of American, Spanish, Dutch and Lebanese citizens are also leaving. President Gbagbo has urged foreigners to stay, saying he will guarantee their safety, but few people appear to have any faith in his promise.

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