French troops destroy government aircraft after bomb strike kills eight French peacekeepers

Saturday, November 6th 2004, 11:31 am
By: News On 6

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Warplanes bombed French peacekeepers Saturday, killing eight French soldiers and wounding 23, prompting a French counterstrike, officials said, in a clash that threatened to escalate Ivory Coast's renewed civil war.

After the French retaliation, pro-government mobs tried to storm a French military base near in the country's commercial center, Abidjan, witnesses said. French troops fired in the air and lobbed tear gas at the crowd.

There were no immediate reports of injuries in the mayhem at the base, near the international airport in Abidjan. It was not clear whether the base had been breached, or whether Ivory Coast troops were involved.

An Associated Press reporter saw throngs of other angry loyalist youths streaming toward the airport and the French base, many clutching chunks of wood and chanting.

The violence threatened to drag French and U.N. peacekeepers into the civil war that hard-line military commanders re-launched on Thursday when they carried out airstrikes on rebel-held positions in the north, breaking a cease-fire that had held for more than a year.

Many in the country's fiercely nationalistic south resent the French peacekeeping force, suspecting it of siding with the rebels, though French forces have often served to protect the government from the rebels. France has about 4,000 troops in Ivory Coast, and a separate U.N. peacekeeping force numbers around 6,000.

The French military announced it was sending three Mirage fighter jets to West Africa, beefing up its military presence in the region. The jets will land at Libreville, Gabon, near Ivory Coast, spokesman Col. Henry Aussavy said.

The confrontation began when government warplanes struck French positions at Brobo, near the northern rebel-held town of Bouake, in the afternoon, U.N. military spokesman Philippe Moreux said.

Eight French soldiers were killed and 23 others wounded, said Defense Ministry spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau in Paris.

In response, French infantry destroyed two Ivory Coast Sukhoi fighter jets on the ground at an airport in the capital, Yamoussoukro, 75 miles to the south, French military spokesman Col. Henry Aussavy said.

``Our forces responded in a situation of legitimate defense,'' Bureau said. ``Now the priority is the immediate end of combat.''

Ivory Coast military commanders have vowed to retake the north, controlled by rebels since the September 2002 start of the war in the world's top cocoa producer.

In Yamoussoukro, crowds of people streamed from the airport to town after the French retaliation. Edgy-looking soldiers turned away a members of an Associated Press crew seeking to get into the airport, telling them it was not safe.

Col. Philippe Mangou confirmed that government planes were destroyed in the French assault at the airport, though he could not say how many. ``The planes were destroyed by shots from the French military ... The planes were on the ground,'' he told The Associated Press.

Ivory Coast's civil war killed thousands and uprooted more than 1 million, threatening efforts by neighboring countries _ Sierra Leone and Liberia _ to recover from their own vicious civil wars of the 1990s.

Last year's peace deals, brokered under international pressure, ended major fighting but an agreed-upon power-sharing government has never taken hold.

The U.N. Security Council, which has poured billions of dollars and thousands of peace troops into West and Central Africa to support peace accords, expressed alarm at the renewed fighting, as have France, the United States and others.

Fearing a spread of the fighting, the France-based relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said Saturday it was evacuating some staff from its hospital in the western town of Danane, about 20 miles from Ivory Coast's border with Liberia. The west saw some of the most brutal attacks of the war.

``We are very worried,'' the aid group's spokeswoman Vanessa van Schoor said. ``We really hope that the hospital will not be attacked. We still have patients inside. The population of Danane has suffered a great deal already'' in the war.

Van Schoor said the hospital would remain functioning. She declined to say how many staffers were being brought out or where they were being taken.

Nigerian President Olosegun Obasanjo, current president of the African Union, opened talks with regional leaders Saturday at his farm on the outskirts of Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, to look for a way out of the crisis.

Remi Oyo, Obasanjo's spokeswoman, declined to say if Ivory Coast government or rebel representatives would take part.