President Laurent Gbagbo on Thursday challenged French accounts of a bombardment that killed nine French troops and a U.S. aid worker Saturday. Gbagbo accused France of using the incident as a pretext to launch a drastic counterattack to weaken his grip on power.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Gbagbo questioned whether French troops had died in the bombing, saying that only an investigation by his government would clarify the events that led to a massive retaliation by French military forces.
"I haven't see any dead bodies," said Gbagbo, dressed in a dark suit and tie as he sat in the library of his official residence. "I didn't see anything."
The streets of Abidjan were calmer Thursday, with little of the looting and street mob scenes that had reigned since Saturday. But an additional 700 French citizens left the commercial capital on the second day of an airlift to Paris, while hundreds of Gbagbo's supporters controlled sections of the battle-scarred city.
Gbagbo called the Saturday attack a "pretext" for retaliation by former colonial rulers intent on undermining him. He said the French military response was so swift that it must have been planned long in advance of the incident.
He also said that without the French intervention, which destroyed the tiny Ivory Coast air force, his government would have been able to defeat a revolt in the north that has split the country for two years.
The president's comments were immediately disputed by French authorities here. The French military spokesman, Col. Henry Assauvy, said, "It's absolutely false. I know that the rumor is always that France is always preparing a coup. . . . We are not here to prepare a coup."
Assauvy added that the French became involved militarily last weekend because the Ivory Coast air force attacked a position held by French peacekeeping forces. The counterattack destroyed two fighter jets and some helicopters.
"We attacked the warplanes because we were attacked," Assauvy said.
Gbagbo's comments appeared to be part of a public relations push by Ivory Coast officials to portray themselves as victims in the complex standoff that has provoked nearly a week of violent unrest in this West African country.
As calm returned to the streets, the French military relinquished control of the international airport, and commercial flights were to resume Friday. French troops also pulled back from the Hotel d'Ivoire, where their highly visible position had stirred protest because of its proximity to Gbagbo's home.
But signs of the recent unrest were visible throughout the city. Overturned hulls of burned-out cars and trucks lay by roadsides, and coils of hastily laid barbed wire snaked along routes leading to the French military base. Hundreds of Gbagbo supporters, dubbed "Young Patriots," used makeshift barricades such as tree limbs to block passage to sections of the city where they roamed freely.
About 1,500 French nationals have flown to Paris since the outbreak of violence, and nearly the same number remained camped out at the French military base awaiting flights.
Until last week, an estimated 15,000 French citizens lived in Ivory Coast, most of them in Abidjan, a city of wide, tree-lined boulevards that once prompted comparisons to Paris. Since then, the city has deteriorated with a swiftness that startled many longtime residents.
Lavender Degre, 37, a Zambian who runs a nonprofit group here, said mobs looted her son's school this week. The family spent Thursday morning in line, waiting to join the exodus to Paris.
"My husband is white, and we're scared," she said. "We've been here for 10 years, and this is the first time we're really scared."
Gbagbo, in the interview, expressed little concern over such departures. "They will come back," he said, wagging his finger in the air. "You must come back in three months. They will be there."
He displayed more worry about the world's perception of the past week's events. As he explained it, a longtime war with anti-government rebels was nearing its end after the government suddenly broke a peace deal Friday and resumed attacks on rebel positions.
Gbagbo said the French military intervention had prevented his forces from finishing the job. The embattled leader, who took office in 2000 after an aborted vote count in national elections, has long maintained that the French support the rebellion.
"The government of Jacques Chirac never accepted that I have reached the position of president," he said.
The mobs of Gbagbo supporters want the French military to leave Ivory Coast. In interviews, many said the military presence is a remnant of the colonial era that ended with Ivory Coast's freedom in 1960.
Thousands of Young Patriots have gathered in recent days outside state television and radio stations and outside the president's home. Their numbers dwindled Thursday, but those who remained said they would continue their demonstrations until the French forces leave.
"I'm here to protect my country," said Marielaure Kone, 37, who runs a small clothing shop in Abidjan. "The French attacked us."