(AP) ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – France rolled out overwhelming military force Sunday to put down an explosion of anti-French violence in its former West African colony, deploying troops, armored vehicles, and helicopter gunships against machete-waving mobs that hunted house-to-house for foreigners.
In the second of two stunning days that stood to alter French-Ivory Coast relations — and perhaps Ivory Coast itself — French forces seized strategic control of the largest city, commandeering airports and posting gunboats under bridges in the commercial capital, Abidjan.
French military helicopters swept in to rescue a dozen trapped expatriates from the rooftop of a once-luxury hotel, flying them and their luggage to safety.
The chaos erupted Saturday when Ivory Coast warplanes launched a surprise airstrike that killed nine French peacekeepers and a civilian American aid worker. The government later called the bombing a mistake.
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.
The slain French troops were among 4,000 French peacekeepers and 6,000 U.N. troops in Ivory Coast, serving as a buffer between the rebel north and loyalist south since civil war broke out in September 2002.
The airstrike on the peacekeepers came after government forces last week broke a cease-fire in place for more than year and launched aerial bomb attacks on rebel positions.
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 civil wars in the 1990s. Ivory Coast is the world’s top cocoa producer and until the late 1990s stood as West Africa’s most prosperous and peaceful nation.
On Sunday, loyalist mobs rampaged in a second day of looting and burning, outraged by the crushing French military response.
Gunshots echoed and smoke billowed over Abidjan and the political capital, Yamoussoukro, as thousands-strong crowds destroyed foreign and locally owned businesses alike. Acrid black smoke rose from barricades of burning tires.
An Associated Press reporter watched a crowd clutching machetes and iron bars enter one neighborhood, demanding if any French lived there.
“If there are any whites in this neighborhood, we’re going to get … them,” one man shouted.
“It’s better to kill the whites than steal their stuff,” another yelled.
About 14,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast. In Abidjan, they crouched in their homes.
“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 handled about 150 people wounded in the violence, most from bullets. It had no figures on deaths. State TV showed the bodies of what it said were five loyalists.
French armored vehicles moved into some residential neighborhoods, scattering rioters with volleys of tear gas and percussion grenades. At one spot, Ivory Coast military police watched, unmoving, as French forces confronted the crowds.
French helicopters fired percussion grenades to break up mobs holding the bridges and besieging the French military base in Abidjan.
France landed 300 fresh troops Sunday at the Abidjan airport, that has been in French hands since a gunbattle with Ivory Coast forces a day earlier. About 300 more troops were on the way.
Also, heavily armed French reinforcements moved south from Yamoussoukro to help restore calm in Abidjan.
The U.N. Security Council, in emergency session late Saturday, demanded an immediate halt to all military action in Ivory Coast, and France blamed Ivory Coast’s leader directly.
“I think President (Laurent) Gbagbo is personally responsible for what has happened,” French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told France LCI television on Sunday, calling the violence “unexplainable, unjustifiable.”
Fearing attempts to overthrow Gbagbo, loyalist leaders called on followers to surround the presidential mansion in a “human shield.”
Gbagbo, installed as president by street uprising during an aborted 2000 election, stayed out of sight.
His spokesman told The Associated Press that Ivory Coast was willing to cease fire, and immediately pull forces from the peacekeeper-controlled buffer zone.
The government troops had been in the third day of their first offensive against rebels after breaking a the cease-fire that had held for more than a year.
Ivory Coast will ask the U.N. Security Council for action against France, presidential spokesman Desire Tagro said. “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.”
France rejected the accusation.
“In no way is France there to destabilize Ivory Coast and its institutions or take sides,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It is above all concerned with preserving constitutional legality. There is no hidden agenda.”
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.