ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – French armored vehicles took up positions near the home of Ivory Coast's president Monday, and thousands of his supporters marched on the site, fearing an attempt to oust him as France clamped down on violence in its former West African colony.
The commanders of Ivory Coast (search) and French forces appeared jointly on state television to appeal for calm. Earlier, French troops fired warning shots to ward off the surging, chanting throngs filling the streets around the home of President Laurent Gbagbo (search).
A weekend of unrest by machete-waving mobs confronting French troops has left more than 500 people wounded, a Red Cross official said. Two Abidjan hospitals told The Associated Press they handled a total of five dead and 250 wounded in Monday's violence alone, with at least three killed by gunshots.
Fifty armored vehicles moved in around Gbagbo's home in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, presidential spokesman Desire Tagro said.
"Their presence here is scaring people. They're crying and they think that President Gbagbo is going to be overthrown," Tagro told the AP by telephone.
The French denied surrounding the house or intending to oust Gbagbo, saying forces only were securing a temporary base at a hotel a couple hundred yards away for foreign evacuations.
"Everything should go back to normal," Gen. Henri Poncet said on state TV. "It is absolutely not a matter of ousting President Laurent Gbagbo."
Gen. Matthias Doue, Ivorian chief of army staff, urged rioters to go home, adding: "I call on people to remain calm."
Despite the appeal, the protest swelled by several thousand people by late afternoon.
Protesters chanted against the French, yelling, "The whites don't like the blacks, but we don't care!" Some signs declared, "Ivory Coast is a sovereign state."
A standoff arose outside Abidjan as well, as several hundred loyalist youths stood on a main road, blocking a 70-vehicle, heavily armed convoy of French reinforcements trying to enter the city.
Tensions crossed Ivory Coast's borders, with U.N. officials telling AP that more than 1,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Liberia. Guinea, to the north, said it was sending military reinforcements to its own border.
French forces have moved to take control of Abidjan after chaos erupted in this West African nation Saturday. Ivorian warplanes launched a surprise airstrike that killed nine French peacekeepers and an American civilian aid worker in the north, held by rebels since a 2002 civil war divided the country. The government later called the bombing a mistake, which France rejected.
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.
Street-level violence erupted, with mobs seeking to exact revenge on French citizens. With armored vehicles and helicopter gunships deployed, France used tear gas and concussion grenades to quell the mobs.
After 150 people were reported wounded Saturday, Red Cross official Kim Gordon-Bates said the toll had climbed to "over 500 wounded — much more than that." Loyalist mobs were blocking efforts to set up an emergency clinic for the injured, he said.
France said it was not intervening to destabilize the country or take sides in the country's civil war, while Gbagbo appealed for calm.
Over the weekend, hard-liners called for loyalists to form a "human shield" around Gbagbo's home, and on Monday state media called on young and old to take to the streets nearby and at the broadcast headquarters.
Near the president's house, mobs swarmed one foreigner — by appearance an immigrant from a neighboring northern country — caught up in their midst, kicking and beating him. "Kill him," young men shouted, before he was dragged into the crowd.
Six men, faces painted black, forced an AP reporter from his taxi at gunpoint and commandeered the vehicle.
French Embassy spokesman Francois Guenon denied the French troops were targeting Gbagbo, saying, "It is not a question of ousting him, that is very clear."
French armored vehicles rolled through the city after taking control of the international airport and strategic points, including bridges, over the weekend.
After angry government loyalists looted and burned businesses and roamed house-to-house in search of French citizens, residents Monday assessed the damage to a skyscraper-lined city that once was West Africa's most prosperous — thanks to Ivory Coast's position as the world's top cocoa producer.
"Everything is burned," said one woman, a teacher at a French school that was looted and torched in the anti-French riots. "They have stolen everything they could."
"They even tore out the toilet seat," she said on condition her name not be used. "The only thing I'm waiting for is for the airport to open, so I can get out of here."
France has about 4,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast. The United Nations has about 6,000, manning a buffer zone between rebel north and government south.
On Monday, French military planes returned home the bodies of the nine French soldiers killed in the bombing, along with 34 wounded soldiers.
In Paris, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie rejected accounts by some Ivory Coast officials that the bombing was a mistake and urged the reopening of peace talks.
In Ethiopia, the African Union upheld the U.N. and French intervention in Ivory Coast.
"We do not condemn the action of the French forces," said Republic of Congo Foreign Minister Rodolphe Adada, who chaired an emergency session Monday on Ivory Coast. "In fact, the action of the French forces have contributed to the restoration of peace and security."
At the United Nations, a draft Security Council resolution circulated Monday called for an arms embargo on Ivory Coast and a travel ban and asset freeze against those blocking peace, violating human rights, and preventing the disarmament of combatants.
A 1999 coup, amid increasing instability following the 1993 death of Ivory Coast's three-decade post-independence leader, ended Ivory Coast's reputation for stability. Gbagbo was installed amid an uprising by his supporters the next year during an aborted vote count for the first post-coup presidential elections.
South African President Thabo Mbeki (search) was consulting with African leaders ahead of an emergency trip to Ivory Coast, a foreign affairs spokesman said Monday. The African Union said Sunday it would send Mbeki to press Ivory Coast to find a political solution.