(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Fresh violence erupts even as Mbeki tries to push peace

[South Africa] President Thabo Mbeki, who has urged leaders to back peace council.

Just hours after South African President Thabo Mbeki visited Cote d'Ivoire to try to revive its battered peace process, French troops fired to disperse protesters on the streets of Abidjan killing at least four people, the Ivorian government said on Tuesday.

"The French fired at the crowd. There are four dead, two civilians and two military policemen," Desire Tagro, the spokesman for Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, told IRIN.

"There are injured people all around me but I can't count them," he said by telephone from in front of the Hotel Ivoire, where thousands of anti-French protesters had rallied throughout the day.

The director of the nearby Cocody hospital said seven bodies had been brought in since 3.00 pm, and his staff had treated at least 200 wounded people and sent a further 100 injuries to another medical centre.

The French military were not immediately available to comment but the French embassy in Abidjan confirmed four Ivorians had died at the hotel.

Witnesses said ambulances were streaming towards the scene, sirens blazing, and clouds of smoke could be seen coming from the hotel, which lies in the upmarket neighbourhood of Cocody close to the presidential residence.

"People are in the midst of ransacking the place. The French troops have all gone, it's just the looters now," one Abidjan resident said.

Unrest in Abidjan began on Saturday after French troops demolished almost the entire airforce of its former colony in retaliation for a deadly bombing on a French base in northern Cote d'Ivoire.

Hate messages broadcast on state radio and television whipped up anti-French feeling and irate Ivorians took to the streets, attacking expatriate homes, businesses and schools. French troops moved into the city to secure major junctions, the bridges and the airport, denying they were trying to topple Gbagbo and stressing they were there to protect foreign citizens.

International aid workers put the number of injured in the first three days of mob violence at between 600 and 700 but said it was difficult to confirm the figures.

Tuesday's trouble erupted shortly after Mbeki met Gbagbo for more than three hours of talks about how to resolve the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire.

The world's top cocoa producer has been split into a government-controlled south and a rebel-held north since September 2002. A shaky ceasefire had been in place for the last eighteen months but collapsed on Thursday when the Ivorian army launched an offensive on the north.

"President Mbeki appreciates the steps the Ivorian government has taken towards meeting some of the goals outlined in the Linas-Marcoussis and Accra 3 (peace deals)," his spokesman told IRIN after the talks had ended.

Some diplomats were sceptical about what the South African leader, who had been mandated by the African Union, had achieved on his flying one day mission.

"There's been no progress at all," a senior West African diplomat in Abidjan told IRIN. "Mbeki outlined his view, which has been known for a long time, that political reforms should be adopted quickly but that line has no chance of being adhered to by Gbagbo's party."

Under the peace deal, the government was supposed to pass a series of political reforms, including a controversial amendment to the constitution to widen the pool of those eligible to become president, and the rebels were supposed to start disarming in mid-October.

But each side dug in its heels, each blaming the other for the failure of the Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement, brokered by the French in 2003.

On Tuesday, the leader of the New Forces rebel group, Guillaume Soro, said there was only one way for the peace process to move forward.

"I will not accept any solution other than Gbagbo's departure, that's all there is to it," Soro told IRIN by telephone from northern Cote d'Ivoire. "Gbagbo, and Gbagbo alone, restarted hostilities and we cannot accept another wobbly plan."

France is currently trying to win support in the UN Security Council for a resolution that would slap a year-long arms embargo on Cote d'Ivoire as well as imposing travel bans and freezing the funds of any individual blocking the implementation of the peace deal.

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