HUGE mobs surged through the streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city yesterday, torching property and barricading family homes, following the weekend annihilation of the country’s air force by French peacekeepers.
As Ivory Coast, the jewel in the crown of France’s former African empire, descended into anarchy and civil war, Paris yesterday flew in 400 troop reinforcements to strengthen its military hold on Abidjan International Airport.
French helicopters and artillery fired "warning shots" at a great tide of Ivorians trying to cross the Charles de Gaulle and Houphout-Boigny bridges from the city centre to the airport, which the mobs, thousands strong, had been urged to "liberate" by state media.
Ministers in President Laurent Gbagbo’s government, infuriated by French soldiers’ destruction of two Ivorian warplanes and five helicopter gunships on Saturday, issued incendiary appeals for grass-roots action against all targets associated with the West African state’s former colonial masters.
Parliamentary speaker Mamadou Coulibaly called on government supporters to prepare for war. "Today’s [Sunday’s] events mark a point of change," he said. "Vietnam will be as nothing compared with what we are going to do here." President Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front, demanded "the immediate departure of all French troops from the Ivory Coast".
The attack on the Ivorian Air Force was launched after nine French soldiers were killed and 23 wounded in an attack by a Sukhoi-25 fighter-bomber on a base near Bouake, in the north of the country.
Bouake is the headquarters of rebels called the New Forces, who control the northern half of the country following a truce in the civil war which has left thousands dead and more than a million uprooted. The northern rebels are largely Muslims, and their links to countries on the edge of the Sahara to the north, such as Burkina Faso and Mali, are stronger than with the mainly Roman Catholic Ivorians in the lush, tropical south.
A buffer zone across the centre of the country is patrolled by 6,000 UN peacekeepers supported by some of the 4,200 French troops posted in the country.
Government forces broke the ceasefire last Thursday when its Russian-made Sukhoi planes and MI-24 helicopter gunships began bombing and strafing Bouake and six other northern towns. When the Sukhois hit a French position on Saturday they were destroyed on orders of Jacques Chirac, the French president, when they returned to their base at Yamoussoukro, the Ivorian capital.
The helicopters were destroyed inside the grounds of the presidential palace in Yamoussoukro, birthplace of Felix Houphout-Boigny, who ruled for 45 years until his death in 1993.
The mobs trying to storm the French-held airport are led by the government’s Young Patriots militia. They have looted and burned the offices of two opposition newspapers, at least four French schools and a library.
The fate of an estimated 20,000 French citizens living in Abidjan is unclear.
One reporter watched yesterday as a crowd armed with machetes and iron bars entered a neighbourhood near the city’s main French military base, demanding to know if there were any French living there. "It’s better to kill the whites than steal their stuff," one rioter shouted.
"It’s better to burn them, like in Algeria. They burned the whites - that’s why they’re respected," another said.
One French resident, said: "We are all terrified and try to reassure each other. We have been told by the embassy to stay at home. It is a difficult situation to live through." Numerous French families say their homes are being attacked, said Colonel Henry Ausavvy, the French army spokesman at Abidjan Airport. Electricity and phone lines to the French embassy had been cut, he added.
Mr Coulibaly said 30 people were killed when French helicopters fired on thousands of Ivorians trying to cross the strategic bridges to get to the airport. A French army spokesman admitted that ground forces had directed cannon fire above demonstrators’ heads while helicopters dropped percussion grenades to deter their advance - but he denied that anyone had been hit.