Ivory Coast's Key City Erupts in Anger Over French-Brokered Peace Deal

Mobs in the country's largest city attacked foreigners and French institutions Sunday in violent protests against a French-brokered peace plan.

Pillars of white smoke rose from the direction of Ivory Coast's French Embassy, and explosions were heard from nearby. In Paris, a Defense Ministry official said France would "reinforce" its military presence in its former West African colony, already 2,500 strong.

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo -- also in Paris, where the peace plan was drafted Friday -- appealed for order.

"I ask all Ivorians to stay calm, to go back to their homes and wait for me to come home and address them," Gbagbo said in a message aimed at rioting supporters of his government.

The furious protests erupted late Saturday and early Sunday as news of the peace deal reached the heavily pro-government commercial capital, Abidjan. The wide-ranging plan, aimed at ending the four-month insurgency, envisions a power-sharing deal between the government and rebels.

Government supporters, thinking the deal gave too much to the rebels, surged toward the French embassy, main military base and other French centers -- blaming France for results of the two weeks of talks outside Paris.

"France has disappointed us. They gave power to people who took up arms against Ivory Coast. They have opened Pandora's box," said Ble Goude, an influential youth leader who has organized pro-government rallies that sometimes turned violent.

Thousand of rioters, many waving sticks and carrying rocks, filled the streets and highways Sunday morning, closing them to traffic. Goude had called for rioters to march on a French military base, but called it off to await the president's expected return Sunday evening.

The unrest raised doubts over the success of the peace plan -- especially because it apparently lacks support of Ivory Coast's powerful security forces, which allowed the mobs to break a strict 9 p.m. curfew.

Protesters burned tires, and scattered gunfire rang out in the city during the night. Others looted French institutions and pillaged the city's main shopping center and a radio station.

Mobs set up roadblocks and attacked foreigners who ventured out to try to reach safety or their families. Embassies urged their nationals to stay inside.

It was impossible to immediately approach the French embassy, but it appeared French security forces were firing tear gas to drive back thousands of protesters. Military helicopters could be seen landing in the area of the French compound, and men in civilian clothes and armed with machine guns stood guard on the roof.

A woman who answered the telephone at the embassy said all inside were too busy to talk. "We're trying to make sure our French citizens are secure," she said.

Elsewhere in the city, French forces fired tear gas and water cannon to drive back what French military spokesman Lt. Col. Ange-Antoine Leccia said were rock-throwing protesters.

In Paris, a French Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said crowds had "pillaged" a French school and the city's French cultural center.

President Jacques Chirac issued an appeal for Ivorians to respect the peace agreement, and thanked Gbagbo for putting forth "the necessary effort so that reconciliation can take place with respect to constitutional principals."

There were no firm reports of casualties, although some rioters claimed the French defending the embassy had injured two protesters. There was no confirmation from the French.

War in Ivory Coast broke out Sept. 19 with a failed coup attempt against Gbagbo, and since saw rebels seize the northern half of the country and parts of the cocoa- and coffee-rich west.

Rebels accuse the president of fanning ethnic tensions and hostilities in Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer and the financial heart of West Africa. Regional leaders and pushed for an end to the conflict, concerned it could spark a broader war in an already blood-soaked zone.

Authorities say the peace agreement allocates the northern-based rebels control of the Interior and Defense ministries -- giving them say over the army and the heavily pro-government paramilitary police.

The United States has welcomed the peace accord, though hundreds of protesters staged a peaceful rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Abidjan, urging Washington to come out against the plan.

Street violence has been rife in Abidjan since a 1999 coup. The next year, rioters and security forces killed hundreds of people in unrest after Gbagbo's election.