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Ivory Coast regime fractures

Opposition party, rebels withdraw

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Rebels and the main opposition party pulled out of Ivory Coast's power-sharing government yesterday following deadly clashes between security forces and protesters who marched despite a ban on demonstrations.

The death toll varied widely -- from 31, according to the opposition, to five, according to an army spokesman. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

In any case, the street skirmishes were the bloodiest in Ivory Coast's commercial capital since a failed 2002 coup in this West African country once noted for its stability and prosperity as the world's largest cocoa producer.

Amid the violence, Air France suspended flights to the country, and the French Foreign Ministry called on all parties to show restraint. There are about 4,000 French soldiers in Ivory Coast.

The events dealt a serious blow to the January 2003 peace deal brokered by France that established a power-sharing government.

"We have suspended our participation in the government to protest against today's killings," rebel spokesman Alain Lobognon said.

Rebel forces in the north were put "on alert," he added without elaborating.

Bacongo Cisse, spokesman for the main opposition Rally of the Republicans, said his party also would suspend its participation to protest the violence.

The opposition Democratic Party of Ivory Coast pulled out of the government March 4, saying President Laurent Gbagbo was not fully implementing the accord. The same complaints were behind yesterday's march.

The United Nations is preparing to deploy 6,240 UN peacekeepers early next month to back about 4,000 French and 1,400 West African troops already deployed.

Opposition militants gathered early in Abidjan's outlying, poorer suburbs and planned to converge on the city center's barricaded Plateau district, where the presidential palace is guarded with tanks and armored cars. They never got close.

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse them. Then, according to witnesses, paramilitary police opened fire with assault rifles, killing several in the crowd.

As tires were set ablaze in the streets, two fighter jets and several helicopter gunships flew overhead.

Much of the violence subsided by dusk, and one opposition spokesman, Djedje Mady of the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, urged protesters to go home.

"Faced with the barbarity of the soldiers, I have asked our militants to withdraw and to keep themselves safe," Mady said. "We are asking them to go back home."

Most streets were deserted -- except for patrolling security forces. The government declared yesterday a public holiday and ordered all schools closed.

Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Aka N'goran said five people were killed, including two police officers, two "criminals" who tried to disarm paramilitary police, and one man shot by an unknown assailant.

Lieutenant Colonel Bruno Misset, spokesman for the French Army, confirmed 12 fatalities.

Mady put the death toll at 24, while Cisse said it was 31, including three police.

Cisse said two of the dead were shot by a helicopter gunship in the southern Port Bouet neighborhood.

The bloodied corpse of one policeman lay in a courtyard in the northern suburb of Abobo, where security forces broke up gathering crowds.

The policeman was among a group of officers who first fired at stone-hurling demonstrators but retreated as protesters gave chase, resident Mady Traore said.

"We followed him and he entered a courtyard. We broke down the door and came up behind him, and knocked him down with a brick," Traore said. "When he fell down, one of our friends shot him."

Nearby, other witnesses said mobs burned tires in the road and threw rocks at security forces. Paramilitary police "shot into the crowd. I saw two people fall," one man said on condition of anonymity.

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