ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Screaming "We will kill the French!" thousands of protesters mobbed a French military base Wednesday, pressing their call for peacekeepers to abandon Ivory Coast so government attacks on rebels can resume.
Demonstrators hurled rocks, and Ivorian and French forces fired tear gas to disperse the crowd of pro-government youths, gathered for a third straight day — 6,000 strong — despite a government ban.
In the rebel-held north, thousands rallied against the government, vowing to support the 4,000-strong French force and demanding the resignation of President Laurent Gbagbo (search).
Since civil war was declared over nine months ago, French and West African peacekeepers have enforced a shaky cease-fire along a 400-mile line between north and south.
But with rebels having left the government and protests growing, many worry fighting could erupt again in this once-peaceful West African nation, split in two since a failed coup attempt in September 2002.
"We're afraid the war will restart," said Diaby Baba, an Ivory Coast businessman in the commercial capital. "With everything that's happening, I fear the worst."
French schools were closed Wednesday amid threats against French businesses and civilians in this former colony.
At midday, Goude strode up to the French base carrying a mattress he said he would sleep on. He plopped it on the ground near the gate, covered himself in a white blanket and declared he wouldn't leave until the French did.
"I'm tired of all this. I demand that the French leave the front-line or disarm the rebels," Goude said, speaking under an umbrella hoisted by an aide to shield him from the sun.
His followers settled down with him.
"I'm here for a peaceful objective ... this is not a demonstration against the French," Goude said. "I call on Ivorians not to attack the French or foreigners. Our fight is noble."
Another militia leader, Charles Groguhet, warned attacks on French interests were inevitable if French troops remained. "The French will have to leave because we'll attack their children, their goods and their interests," he said.
The protesters, some wearing gas masks and many armed with iron bars and sticks, removed a ring of coiled barbed wire from around the base. At one point, they stood nearly face to face with several dozen armed French troops wielding riot helmets and shields.
At least 11 protesters were injured by tear gas grenades, and protesters threw stones at the car of at least one unidentified white foreigner.
French army spokesman Lt. Col. Georges Peillon played down the demonstration, saying only, "We remain vigilant." In Paris, the government said it would not bow to militant demands to withdraw peacekeepers.
France's troops are working with about 1,200 West African peacekeepers to enforce a January peace deal and power-sharing government that brought top rebel officials into Gbagbo's administration. Disgruntled rebels pulled out of the government in September.
Loyalist militias want peacekeepers to pull back from cease-fire line, so government troops in the south can take back rebel-held territory.
In the northern town of Bouake, rebel leaders issued a statement reaffirming their support for peacekeepers to "accomplish their delicate mission" and calling on Gbagbo to commit himself to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.
But on the streets of Bouake, thousands of pro-rebel protesters demanded Gbagbo quit. "We don't want Gbagbo. He must resign," read one placard.
The pro-government youth leader, Goude, has called on supporters to march on the French-held cease-fire line on Friday.