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Ivory Coast Violence Breaks French Connection

Angry Mobs Rampage Through Areas and Businesses Identified With Former Colonial Ruler

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 13, 2004; Page A19

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, Nov. 12 -- Chanting, "We want the French!" a crowd of armed and angry young men swept past La Planta, a club owned by an Ivorian. They started to attack the nearby Byblos restaurant, then stopped when the owner pleaded, "No, no! I'm Lebanese!"

But when it came to Club Le Saint Germain, the mob showed no restraint. The elegant eatery had not only a French owner but also a predominantly French clientele, including soldiers from the nearby military base.

Men walked in a street of Yamoussoukro, the Ivorian capital, after lootings last weekend. Mobs have targeted French businesses, but other shops have also been attacked. (Luc Gnago -- Reuters)

Last Saturday night, witnesses said, men armed with wood planks, iron rail spikes and a lust for revenge battered down the club's steel doors. They yanked bars from the windows and bashed a gaping hole through the concrete wall.

As the owner and a friend watched from an adjacent roof, the mob stole everything that could be taken and destroyed what remained, witnesses said. The posh establishment was reduced to little more than a dirt-streaked shell.

Across this shaken West African city, the pattern of selective destruction was evident Friday after two days of relative calm. Burned and battered buildings stood beside others that had been virtually untouched, with targets apparently singled out because they were identified with France, Ivory Coast's former colonial ruler.

The centuries-old relationship, which had enjoyed an extended period of calm after independence in 1960, became increasingly frayed after the current Ivorian government took power four years ago and subsequent political unrest persisted.

In recent weeks, growing tensions between President Laurent Gbagbo's camp and French peacekeeping troops finally erupted in five days of street violence, beginning when an Ivorian airstrike last Saturday killed nine French troops and a U.N. aid worker, and a retaliatory French attack wiped out several Ivorian warplanes and helicopters.

Ivorians disagree about whether to blame Gbagbo, the activists known as Young Patriots who have become the enforcers of his political will, or the French themselves, who often seemed to have everything that Ivorians did not: wealth, education, lavish homes and fancy cars.

But as hundreds of French nationals have continued to flee each day in an air evacuation to Paris, many Ivorians agree that, in the end, it is they who will suffer most from this bitter turn of events. Every one of the 38 employees at Club Le Saint Germain, for example, was Ivorian. Now, all are out of work.

"For one white person, 38 people had jobs," said Kone Ibrahim Dotoulougo, 31, a doorman at the club, referring to the French owner.

Trouble first broke out Nov. 4, when Gbagbo broke a longtime cease-fire by attacking rebels who control the largely Muslim areas in the northern half of Ivory Coast. That same day, a mob of young men arrived in two city buses at the offices of the Patriote, an opposition newspaper, said employees there.

While more than a dozen journalists scrambled to safety over an exterior wall, the frenzied crowd rammed through a padlocked steel door, overturned furniture, battered the printing press and set the building on fire. The paper has not published since.

"We are sure if they had caught some of us, we would have been killed," said Toure Moussa, the editor. He said the men who attacked his paper and two others were from the Young Patriots and acting on government orders.

"It's to make us mute, to make all opposition voices mute," Moussa said.

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