ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – France sent reinforcements to Ivory Coast (search) and deployed armored vehicles and helicopter gunships as French troops used tear gas and concussion grenades to quell an explosion of violence in its former West African colony.
French forces on Sunday seized strategic control of the largest city, commandeering airports and posting gunboats under bridges in the commercial capital, Abidjan. Loyalist mobs rampaged in a second day of looting, outraged by the French military response.
France said it was not intervening to destabilize the country or take sides in the country's civil war, while President Laurent Gbagbo (search) appealed for calm.
"I implore, I implore the population to stay calm ... and I ask all demonstrators to go back to their homes," the Ivorian leader said.
It was his first public comment since Thursday, when government forces broke a cease-fire that had been in place for more than a year and launched aerial bomb attacks on rebel positions.
Chaos erupted Saturday, when Ivory Coast warplanes launched a surprise airstrike that killed nine French peacekeepers and an American civilian aid worker. The government later called the bombing a mistake, but the violence continued.
France hit back within hours, wiping out Ivory Coast's newly built-up air force — two Russian-madeSukhoi jet fighters (search) 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 who serve as a buffer between the rebel-held north and loyalist south since civil war broke out in September 2002.
A spokesman for Gbagbo told The Associated Press that Ivory Coast was willing to cease fire and immediately pull forces from the peacekeeper-controlled buffer zone.
Gbagbo thanked the army and hard-liner loyalists, and accepted no blame for the bombing of the French post, saying only that a bomb "supposedly" had caused the 10 deaths.
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 1990s civil wars. Ivory Coast is the world's top cocoa producer and until several years ago stood as West Africa's most prosperous and peaceful nation.
France defended its actions.
"(France) is above all concerned with preserving constitutional legality. There is no hidden agenda," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Gunshots echoed in Abidjan and the political capital, Yamoussoukro, as crowds thousands-strong destroyed foreign and locally owned businesses. Acrid black smoke rose from barricades of burning tires.
An AP reporter watched a crowd clutching machetes and iron bars enter one neighborhood, demanding to know if any French lived there.
"If there are any whites in this neighborhood, we're going to get ... them," one man shouted.
About 14,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast. In Abidjan, they stayed out of sight.
"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 treated about 150 people wounded in the violence, most of them injured by bullets. It had no figures on deaths. State TV showed the bodies of what it said were five loyalists.
French armored vehicles guarded some neighborhoods, scattering rioters with volleys of tear gas and concussion grenades. Helicopters fired concussion grenades to break up mobs holding the bridges and besieging the French military base in Abidjan.
France flew in 300 fresh troops and about 300 more were en route.
"I think President Gbagbo is personally responsible for what has happened," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told France LCI television on Sunday, calling the violence "unexplainable, unjustifiable."
Ivory Coast, in turn, said it will ask the U.N. Security Council for action against France. "We are faced with aggression by one country against another country. We are going to inform the entire world ... that France has come to attack us," presidential spokesman Desire Tagro said.
Fearing attempts to overthrow Gbagbo, who was installed as president after street protests amid an aborted 2000 vote count, loyalist leaders called on followers to surround the presidential mansion in a "human shield."
While admired by his violently devoted followers, Gbagbo is widely accused by critics of fanning ethnic, political and regional hatreds in Ivory Coast since a 1999 coup opened the way for instability and repeated violence.