Sapa-AFP, iol (SA), Jun. 8
Abidjan — An overnight attack on a military post in central Ivory Coast unleashed a wave of anti-French violence in the main city Abidjan on Monday and an Ivorian army air strike into the rebel-held north of the divided west African country.
The latest escalation in tensions to pummel the former regional powerhouse for 20 months came as President Laurent Gbagbo was in the United States on a week-long private visit.
It was a failed coup bid against Gbagbo in September 2002 — by rebels who retain control of the north — that sent Ivory Coast tumbling into conflict.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also warned on Monday that Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer, was at a “crossroads”, teetering into instability.
Ivorian military spokesperson Colonel Jules Yao Yao said that early on Monday morning a “renegade armed group” attacked Ivorian and French military posts in the farming town of Gohitafla, one of several military installations tucked into the confidence zone cutting 400km across the country of 17 million.
About 4 000 French troops have been patrolling a ceasefire since last year, helping to steer the former French colony back towards reconciliation.
Yao Yao spoke of a number of casualties on all sides; five Ivorian troops were killed and four injured, while 15 assailants and two civilians also died. Another 15 assailants, who had broken into the camp to raid its weapons cache, were arrested.
French military Lieutenant Colonel Philippe de Cussac said two French soldiers suffered minor injuries but that troops responded “firmly . . . taking many losses among their assailants”.
The rebel movement swiftly and strongly denied responsibility for the attack.
Rebel military commander Colonel Soumaila Bakayoko blamed followers of coup-plotter Ibrahim Coulibaly, currently on probation in France for a 2003 charge of attempting to destabilise Ivory Coast, for the early morning ambush.
To the Ivorian military, however, there was no distinction; a convoy carrying rebel military leaders was hit by Mi-24 helicopter strikes on Monday afternoon, leaving 12 wounded.
Among the passengers returning to the rebel stronghold of Bouake from Konahiri, where they had gone to restore calm after the Gohitafla attack, was Sergeant Cherif Ousmane, a senior rebel military commander and leader of the 2002 rebellion.
Ousmane was not injured, Bakayoko said.
Yao Yao confirmed the air strike against what he said were “five combat vehicles”.
Meanwhile in Abidjan, more than 100 Gbagbo supporters in black T-shirts hurled stones and burned tires outside the French embassy, a favoured target for activists who blame France for a peace pact that brought the rebels into the very government they tried to overthrow.
The protesters warned they would be back on Tuesday in greater numbers, prompting an announcement from the neighbouring US mission that it would close to avoid being targeted by violence. French schools said they, too, would shut their doors.
Anti-French violence choked the city, with angry youths interrupting traffic on the bridges crossing Abidjan’s lagoon in search of white motorists, more targets for their rocks and slurs.
Thirty-one UN vehicles parked in a lot edging the lagoon were damaged in Monday’s violence, their windows and tail-lights smashed by an armed gang. The vehicles are for use by the two month-old UN operation in Ivory Coast aimed at paving the way for peaceful elections set for October 2005.
The Ivorian government “most firmly” condemned the protest violence, calling it a “serious” violation of the Vienna Convention, which prohibits the siege of diplomatic missions and their personnel.
Monday’s aggressions came as Gbagbo departed for the United States on a private trip after announcing he would call early elections as soon as the rebels disarm.
In a fiery speech on Sunday night he vowed that upon his return, “we are going to take care of (the rebels)”. — Sapa-AFP