ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Ivory Coast's embattled leader sounded one of the first conciliatory notes Tuesday in his West African nation's devastating confrontation with its former colonial ruler, declaring, "We are not at war with France."
President Laurent Gbagbo (search), unshaven and looking worn, spoke to The Associated Press at his Abidjan villa, which aides confirmed he had not left since a Nov. 6 airstrike killed nine French peacekeepers and an American.
Gbagbo rejected immediate blame for the airstrike, saying, an "inquiry must establish the truth and punish those responsible. If they are Ivorian soldiers, we will punish them — because we are not at war with France."
The airstrike set off a stunning two-week spate of events threatening lasting harm to Ivory Coast (search), the world's top cocoa producer and the economic anchor of West Africa: French forces destroyed his air force, loyalist mobs took to the streets in rampages that targeted French civilians and troops, and France led a 5,000-plus evacuation of Westerners.
An Ivorian tank, security forces and militants of the Gbagbo-allied Young Patriots popular movement manned checkpoints and a vigil outside his lagoonside home Tuesday night.
But French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier (search) sounded equally conciliatory Tuesday, telling Le Figaro daily, "We are not in a tête-à-tête between Ivory Coast and France. France is in no way at war against Ivory Coast."
While critical of the French military response, which he called "too fast and disproportionate," Gbagbo spoke only in moderate terms on Tuesday. He brushed away his supporters' fears of a French-backed military coup.
"France would remove me to put in who?" he asked.
He sounded tougher on an arms embargo imposed late Monday by the U.N. Security Council, spurred by France but backed by his fellow African leaders.
"Such decisions will encourage rebellions all over Africa," he said. "For me it is absurd to be a legitimate government ... and at the same time to be condemned, while those who want to take power through arms are not."
"A country like Ivory Coast, which has first of all a national responsibility but also a regional responsibility, cannot stay with an ill-equipped army," Gbagbo insisted, saying it was past military weakness that opened the way for a now 2-year-old insurgency here.
"We need a well-equipped army," Gbagbo said. "This must be done."
Gbagbo's defense advisers already had said Ivory Coast would heed the embargo, and Gbagbo stopped short of contradicting them, or of repeating his pre-embargo pledge to buy Ivory Coast a new air force.
The Ivorian leader also appealed to the world's superpower to intervene on his government's behalf — helping him with France, and with disarmament of rebels holding Ivory Coast's north.
"Americans have a good role of mediation to play ... since the French conducted themselves the way they did," he said. "Americans can serve as a unifying force and Americans can bring pressure to bear so that disarmament takes place."
Gbagbo blamed the crisis on Ivory Coast's rebels, saying they kept stalling on a promise to disarm before finally pulling out of a unity government last month. The rebels have held the north of Ivory Coast since civil war broke out in September 2002 with a failed coup attempt against Gbagbo.
The government unleashed airstrikes Nov. 4 against rebel positions in the north in violation of a more than year-old cease-fire, and Gbagbo maintained he came close to achieving his goal of reuniting the country by force — "until the French interceded so brutally."
Peace will depend on three things, he said: disarmament, reunification and fresh elections.
Gbagbo appeared unconcerned by the flight of foreigners, many of whom have invested heavily in Ivory Coast's emergence as an a regional economic bastion.
"They will be back," he said. "The key to everything is disarmament."