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Seven reported dead in Ivory Coast clash

French deny firing from evacuation post

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Security forces opened fire yesterday as thousands of angry government loyalists massed outside a French evacuation post for foreigners, reportedly killing seven people and wounding 200 in violence pitting France against its former prize colony.

France's military denied responsibility, saying it was loyalist demonstrators who opened fire as a French convoy left the post, and Ivorian security forces who returned fire.

The bloodletting erupted at a onetime luxury hotel, which French forces have commandeered as an evacuation center for 1,300 French and other foreigners rescued from rampages across the commercial capital, Abidjan.

An Associated Press photographer saw the bodies of three demonstrators outside a hospital, their bodies draped in Ivorian flags.

The chaos in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer and West Africa's former economic powerhouse, broke out Saturday when Ivory Coast warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an airstrike on the rebel-held north.

In retaliation, France wiped out the nation's small air force on the tarmac, sparking anti-French rampages by thousands in the fiercely nationalist south.

The French set up their evacuation center Monday a few hundred yards from President Laurent Gbagbo's home, and the site is now a flashpoint for violence.

Automatic weapon fire was heard yesterday as thousands pressed around the center in protest, witnesses said.

Abidjan's Cocody Hospital received seven dead and more than 200 wounded, said Dr. Sie Podipte, the emergency room chief.

Four days of confrontations have killed at least 20 other people, wounded 700 and shut down cocoa exports from the world's largest producer.

Yesterday, stunned protesters filled the hospital, and survivors lay out the bodies of some of the dead. A woman lay on the ground, screaming.

President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, sent by the 54-nation African Union to find a political solution to the crisis, said before yesterday's shooting that Gbagbo had recommitted to tension-easing measures agreed to in past accords in the country's two-year-old civil war.

On Monday, Ivory Coast and French generals called on protesters to go home after state radio and TV had urged them to mass at Gbagbo's home and a nearby broadcast center.

French leaders have said they hold Gbagbo -- installed by his supporters in 2000 after an aborted vote count in presidential elections -- responsible for Saturday's airstrike and subsequent antiforeigner rampages.

UN Security Council diplomats weighed a French-backed draft resolution for an arms embargo of Ivory Coast and a travel ban and asset freeze of those blocking peace, violating human rights, and preventing the disarmament of combatants. China was balking at the measures, diplomats said.

France has 4,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, where a civil war launched in September 2002 has left the country split between rebel north and loyalist south. About 6,000 UN troops are also deployed in a buffer zone.

Saturday's bombing was carried out on the third day of Ivory Coast airstrikes on rebel positions, breaking a cease-fire in effect for more than a year.

Violence also was reported in Gagnoa, a central town. Loyalists clashed with people of other tribes, leaving several dead and wounded, an official said.

Ivory Coast snapshot

Rebels have been in control of the northern regions since a failed coup in 2002. Recent unrest has unraveled a 2003 cease-fire between the government and rebels.

Area: 124,502 square miles. Most of the country's forests -- once the largest in West Africa -- have been heavily logged. Most of the inhabitants live along the sandy coastal region.

Capital: Yamoussoukro has been the official capital since 1983, but Abidjan remains the commercial and administrative center; the United States, like other countries, maintains its embassy in Abidjan.

Population: 17.4 million

Median age: 17

HIV/AIDS -- adult prevalence rate: 7%

Ethnic groups: Akan 42.1%, Voltaiques or Gur 17.6%, Northern Mandes 16.5%, Krous 11%, Southern Mandes 10%, other 2.8% (includes 130,000 Lebanese and 14,000 French)

Religions: Muslim 35-40%, indigenous 25-40% Christian 20-30%

Economy: Among the world's largest producers and exporters of coffee, cocoa beans, and palm oil, the economy is highly sensitive to fluctuations in weather conditions and international prices for these goods.

Population below poverty line: 37% (1995)

SOURCES: CIA World Factbook, 2004 World Almanac

GLOBE STAFF GRAPHIC/Kathleen Hennrikus

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