Rioters rape Europeans as they flee from Ivory Coast

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The Independent Online

Several dozen white women have been raped in the Ivory Coast over the past week, as pro-government gangs plundered the homes and businesses of Europeans, although last night an uneasy calm prevailed in the capital, Abidjan.

Several dozen white women have been raped in the Ivory Coast over the past week, as pro-government gangs plundered the homes and businesses of Europeans, although last night an uneasy calm prevailed in the capital, Abidjan.

The men from the Young Patriots movement loyal to the Ivory Coast's president Laurent Gbagbo had attacked the women in retaliation for what they felt to be unjust French interference in their country's internal affairs, the French military said yesterday. General Henri Poncet said in Ivory Coast: "There have been rapes. There were ... tragedies for a certain number of women."

The rioters in Abidjan had been joined by 4,000 convicts from the country's most secure prison who had escaped through the sewers.

Herve Ladsous, a spokes-man for the Foreign Ministry in Paris said a French prosecutor is compiling a list of crimes against French nationals. At least 10 women, one in her sixties, have filed charges of rape. Two French women and one other European national who are known to have been raped have already been evacuated.

Catherine Rechenmann, head of a French citizens' organisation in Ivory Coast told reporters: "For the past five days, I have felt ill. When people start attacking women, when they are raped, it's over, the barriers have been breached. We have been stabbed in the back. People are fleeing and I tell others they must leave too."

The country exploded into violence nine days ago, after the government launched an offensive on rebel-held areas in the north, ending an 18-month old ceasefire between the two sides. Nine French peace-keepers were killed in the raids, and the French retaliated by destroying two fighter planes and six helicopters, Ivory Coast's entire airforce, and sending in 600 French Foreign Legion paratroops to back the thousands of French peace-keepers already in the country.

The rioters then turned on French nationals and other westerners, attacking with machetes and stones, but so far, no foreigners have been reported killed in the violence that is said to have left at least 160 dead.

Most foreign governments have asked their citizens to leave, and chartered planes to take them nearby Ghana. Britain has already sent Ghurkas into Ghana to protect the hundreds of British citizens who are to be airlifted out. RAF Hercules transports and the support ship HMS Albion are also being sent. France has evacuated just 2,092 of the 14,000 French citizens and 8,000 others are waiting to go.

The French President Jacques Chirac has promised government assistance for all evacuated French citizens. In a statement, he said: "After the painful trials these families have just experienced, I want to assure them the authorities will do everything to receive them in the best possible condition.

Pro-government rioters immediately began attacking French homes and businesses in the capital Abidjan, convinced that France wants to oust President Gbagbo. Witnesses in Abidjan say French soldiers opened fire on protesters, but the military says people in the crowds began shooting first and they were protecting French citizens and other foreigners taking refuge from the mobs in military bases.

The Ivorian minister of justice has said France should be tried at the International Court of Justice for its actions. The head of France's armed forces, General Henri Bentegeat, said his troops "did the absolute minimum" in self-defence.

Normal transport out of the country's airport and ports have been suspended, although electricity and phone lines are functioning again after having been shut down for the past few days. Ivorian government forces have pulled back from rebel positions, easing fears of a resumption of all-out civil war.

The African Union has asked leaders from the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mail, Senegal and Libya to meet for talks on Sunday to resolve the crisis, but the rebels say they will not participate until Mr Gbagbo has been removed.

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