French tanks were taking up positions at the home of Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo today, and his supporters feared an attempt to overthrow him.
“The French army has deployed 50 tanks a few metres from the residence of the head of state,” said presidential spokesman Desire Tagro,
“Their presence here is scaring people, they are crying and they think that President Gbagbo is going to be overthrown,” he added
Loyalists were reported streaming into the same neighbourhood of the commercial capital Abidjan, in a face-off with French forces after a weekend of violent clashes between French peacekeepers and the government and loyalists of the former French colony.
South African President Thabo Mbeki was consulting with west African leaders ahead of an emergency trip to Ivory Coast in a bid to settle the unrest.
Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer and West Africa’s former economic powerhouse, has been split into rebel north and government south since a September 2002 coup attempt launched the country into civil war.
A 2003 peace deal, brokered under pressure from former colonial ruler France and others, ended major fighting until the government broke the ceasefire last Thursday.
France rolled out overwhelming military might to quell an explosion of anti-French violence, deploying troops, armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships against machete-waving mobs hunting for foreigners.
French military helicopters swept in at one point to rescue a dozen trapped expatriates from the rooftop of what was once a luxury Abidjan hotel, flying them and their suitcases to safety.
The chaos began on Saturday when Ivory Coast warplanes launched a surprise air strike that killed nine French peacekeepers and a civilian American aid worker - later calling it a mistake.
France hit back within hours, wiping out Ivory Coast’s newly built-up air force – two Sukhoi warplanes and at least three helicopter gunships – on the ground.
The dead French soldiers were among 4,000 French peacekeepers and 6,000 United Nations troops in Ivory Coast, divided between rebel north and loyalist south since civil war broke out in September 2002.