Parfait Kouassi, AP, Nov. 8
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — France rolled out overwhelming military force yesterday to put down an explosion of anti-French violence in this former West African colony, deploying troops, armored vehicles and helicopter gunships against machete-waving mobs that hunted house to house for foreigners.
In the second of two stunning days of turmoil, French forces seized strategic control of the largest city, commandeering airports and posting gunboats under bridges in the commercial capital, Abidjan.
French military helicopters swept in to rescue a dozen trapped expatriates from the rooftop of a once-luxury hotel, flying them and their luggage to safety.
Chaos erupted Saturday when Ivory Coast warplanes staged a surprise air strike that killed nine French peacekeepers and a civilian American aid worker. The government later called the bombing a mistake.
France hit back within hours, wiping out Ivory Coast’s newly built-up air force — two Russian-made Sukhoi jet fighters and at least three helicopter gunships — on the ground.
The slain French troops were among 4,000 French peacekeepers and 6,000 U.N. troops in Ivory Coast, serving as a buffer between the rebel north and loyalist south since civil war broke out in September 2002.
The air strike on the peacekeepers came after government forces last week broke a cease-fire in place for more than a year and conducted aerial bomb attacks on rebel positions.
The peacekeepers are trying to hold together a nation whose stability is vital in a region where several nations are only just recovering from devastating civil wars in the 1990s. Ivory Coast is the world’s top cocoa producer, and until the late 1990s, stood as West Africa’s most prosperous and peaceful nation.
Yesterday, loyalist mobs rampaged in a second day of looting and burning, outraged by the crushing French military response.
Gunshots echoed and smoke billowed over Abidjan and the political capital, Yamoussoukro, as thousands-strong crowds destroyed foreign and locally owned businesses alike. Black smoke rose from barricades of burning tires.
A reporter watched a crowd clutching machetes and iron bars enter one neighborhood, demanding to know whether any French lived there.
“If there are any whites in this neighborhood, we’re going to get . . . them,” one man shouted.
“It’s better to kill the whites than steal their stuff,” another yelled.
About 14,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast. In Abidjan, they crouched in their homes.
“We are all terrified, and try to reassure each other,” one French resident said by telephone. “We have been told by the embassy to stay at home. . . It is a difficult situation to live through.”
Abidjan’s hundreds of thousands of immigrants from neighboring Muslim nations also went into hiding.
“We’re afraid because who knows, maybe this is civil war,” said one man, who would identify himself only as Ouedraogo, holed up in a mosque with about 30 others.
The Red Cross said it handled about 150 people wounded in the violence, most from bullets. It had no figures on deaths. State TV showed the bodies of what it said were five loyalists.