Ivory Coast Mobs Attack French Base

Machete-waving mobs thousands-strong looted and burned in Ivory Coast (search)'s largest city Sunday, laying siege to a French military base and searching house to house for French families.

The violence came one day after ground and air clashes between French forces and its former colony.

About 250 French troop reinforcements landed at Abidjan's international airport, which was taken by France late Saturday after it destroyed what it said was the entire Ivory Coast air force — two Sukhoi warplanes and five helicopter gunships.

The reinforcements, bolstering a 4,000-man French peacekeeping force, flew from the West African nation of Gabon (search), where France was holding three Mirage fighter jets on standby.

Saturday's destruction came in retaliation for the Ivory Coast air force's surprise bombing of a French peacekeeping position in the north, held by Ivory Coast rebels since civil war broke out in the world's top cocoa producer in September 2002.

The airstrike killed nine French troops and one American civilian, a consultant working with an aid group, according to the U.S. Embassy.

Mob violence, sparked by loyalist anger at France's retaliatory attack, raged into a second day in Abidjan and the country's political capital, Yamoussoukro.

Loyalist throngs of thousands ruled the streets of Abidjan, setting up roadblocks of burning tires across the city. An Associated Press reporter watched as a crowd armed with machetes and iron bars entered a neighborhood near the city's main French military base, demanding to know if there were any French citizens living in the district.

"We are all terrified, and try to reassure each other," one French resident said by telephone from his home elsewhere in the city, speaking on condition his name be withheld. "We have been told by the embassy to stay at home. ... It is a difficult situation to live through."

France battled to hold back the mobs, dropping percussion grenades throughout the night on mobs massing at bridges, the international airport and the military base in the commercial capital, Abidjan, French military spokesman Col. Henry Aussavy said.

An Associated Press photographer in Yamoussoukro saw mobs of at least hundreds outside the French military base there.

France and the U.N. Security Council, meeting in emergency session Saturday, demanded President Laurent Gbagbo restore order.

Ivory Coast leaders sounded defiance instead.

National Assembly president Mamadou Coulibaly, No. 2 under Gbagbo, accused French President Jacques Chirac of arming Ivory Coast's rebels, telling France's Inter radio: "We have the feeling and we have the proof" of it.

Accusing France of "connivance with the rebels," Coulibaly demanded French troops "liberate the territory and then go."

Hard-liners inside and outside the government urged loyalists to rise up.

"I appeal to young patriots, wherever you are found, to take to the streets and liberate Ivory Coast," said the chairman of Ivory Coast's governing party, Pascal Affy Nguessan.

Nguessan accused the French of firing on the mansion of the president, Gbagbo. Fearing attempts to overthrow Gbagbo, loyalist leaders urged followers to form a "human shield" around his mansion.

Numerous French families contacted French authorities in Ivory Coast overnight, saying their homes were being attacked, Aussavy said.

Also overnight, electricity and phone lines at the French Embassy were cut, spokesman Francois Guenon said.

There was no word on casualties from mob attacks.

However, loyalists claimed at least six of their followers had been killed by the French, and state TV overnight briefly showed the bodies of what it said was five loyalists, journalists said.

Ivory Coast's fall into violence started Thursday, when Gbagbo's military reopened attacks on towns in the rebel-held north after a more than year-old cease-fire.

France and the United Nations jointly have more than 10,000 troops in the West African nation, manning a buffer zone between the rebel north and loyalist south.