Foreigners crowd airport for flights out of Ivory Coast despite government assurances

Saturday, November 13th 2004, 10:28 am
By: News On 6

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Frightened foreigners kept packing into Ivory Coast's international airport Saturday to be evacuated home, despite promises by President Laurent Gbagbo's government to protect them after a surge of anti-Western violence.

France, the West African nation's colonial ruler, and other countries have flown out more than 3,300 foreigners _ including Americans _ since Wednesday, embassy officials said, in what they expect will be one of the largest evacuations from Africa in post-independence times.

Gbagbo's office issued a statement late Friday urging foreigners to stay, saying it was taking steps to assure their safety. But after more than two years of intermittent civil war, many Westerners were skeptical of Gbagbo's assurances.

``This is the lull before the storm,'' said a French businessman working in Ivory Coast's lucrative cocoa industry, who gave his name only as Olivier. He spoke by telephone from the coastal town of Bassam, where he said just 25 of 175 expatriates remained.

Busloads of Westerners continued to pull up to Abidjan's airport, under heavy French guard, to catch flights home. Most were French, but the evacuees also included hundreds of Britons and scores of people from the United States, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries.

The mayhem erupted Nov. 6 when Ivory Coast warplanes struck a French position, killing nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker, amid a series of government bombardments on the rebel-held north. The attacks broke a cease-fire that was more than a year old.

France retaliated by wiping out the country's tiny air force, sparking an uprising by loyalist youths in the south who took to the streets of Abidjan and other cities armed with machetes, iron bars and clubs.

The U.N. Security Council gave wide support to a resolution that would impose sanctions on Ivory Coast if the country's government and rebels do not return to a peace process by the beginning of December.

France defended itself Friday against accusations by Ivory Coast authorities _ and some Western evacuees _ that it used excessive force to protect foreigners against violent mobs during the five days of upheaval that followed.

The head of France's armed forces, Gen. Henri Bentegeat, acknowledged for the first time that his soldiers in Ivory Coast opened fire to hold back what he called a ``pack of looters, rapists and uncontrollable or manipulated people'' in Abidjan, the commercial capital.

But he told Europe-1 radio the soldiers did ``the absolute minimum'' in self-defense. He claimed ``a very large number'' of people were killed by gunmen in the crowds.

At least three European women were raped during the rioting, Catherine Rechenmann, a representative of the French community in Ivory Coast, told France-Inter radio.

Ivory Coast's national reconciliation minister, Dano Djedje, reacted angrily to Bentegeat's comments.

``France has used extreme violence against unarmed demonstrators ... and they should take responsibility for it,'' he told The Associated Press.

Ivory Coast presidential spokesman Desire Tagro claimed Friday that 62 loyalists had died in the turmoil.

Hospital officials and AP journalists have confirmed 27 deaths and more than 1,000 injured in the past week, but that count is likely partial.

With violence abating, African leaders intensified efforts to find a lasting solution to the country's now 2-year-old civil war.

South Africa, which is mediating at the request of the African Union, hosted a third day of talks Saturday in Pretoria with leaders of Ivory Coast's political opposition, including former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara.