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Ivory Coast loyalists in standoff

Fearing overthrow, they confront troops at president's home

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Thousands of government loyalists massed outside the home of the president yesterday, facing off against French armored vehicles in response to urgent appeals for a ''human shield" around the hard-line leader, amid fears of an overthrow.

French and Ivory Coast military leaders, appearing together on state television, appealed for calm following three days of violent protests that the Red Cross said had wounded more than 500 people. Two hospitals reported five dead and 250 wounded in yesterday's clashes alone.

The UN Security Council met to consider sanctions and the African Union came out in support of French and UN intervention, isolating President Laurent Gbagbo.

Chaos erupted Saturday when his air force killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an airstrike on Ivory Coast's rebel-held north. The government later called the bombing a mistake, which France rejected.

Yesterday French armored vehicles moved in around Gbagbo's home in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

''Their presence here is scaring people. They're crying and they think that President Gbagbo is going to be overthrown," presidential spokesman Desire Tagro said in a telephone interview.

The French denied surrounding the house or intending to oust Gbagbo, saying forces were securing a temporary base at a hotel a few hundred yards away for about 1,300 foreigners who had taken refuge at a French military base.

''Everything should go back to normal," French mission commander General Henri Poncet said on state TV, alongside Ivory Coast chief of army staff General Matthias Doue. ''It is absolutely not a matter of ousting President Laurent Gbagbo."

State radio and TV, however, delivered urgent calls for loyalists to gather at Gbagbo's house. Thousands responded, chanting against the French: ''The whites don't like the blacks, but we don't care!" Some signs declared, ''Ivory Coast is a sovereign state."

The crowd swarmed one foreigner -- by appearance an immigrant from a neighboring northern country -- caught up in their midst, kicking and beating him. ''Kill him," young men shouted, before he was dragged into the crowd.

Six men, their faces painted black, forced an AP reporter from his taxi at gunpoint and commandeered the vehicle.

French forces fired warning shots, witnesses and protesters said. Doctors said many of those treated yesterday had been trampled trying to get away, although they reported removing bullets from several wounded.

French military spokesman Colonel Henry Aussavy said he knew of no one shot by French forces. Ivory Coast security forces also have moved forcefully at times against the loyalists.

Red Cross official Kim Gordon-Bates said the casualty toll since Saturday had climbed to ''over 500 wounded -- much more than that." Loyalist mobs were blocking efforts to set up an emergency clinic for the injured, he said.

A standoff arose outside Abidjan as several hundred loyalist youths stood on a main road, blocking a 70-vehicle heavily armed convoy of French reinforcements trying to enter the city.

Tensions crossed Ivory Coast's borders, with UN officials telling AP that more than 1,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Liberia. Guinea, to the north, said it was sending military reinforcements to its border.

After the airstrike Saturday on the French military post, France hit back, wiping out Ivory Coast's newly built-up air force -- two Russian-made Sukhoi jet fighters and at least three helicopter gunships -- on the ground.

Machete-waving mobs sought revenge against French targets. With armored vehicles and helicopter gunships deployed, France used tear gas and concussion grenades to quell the mobs.

Yesterday, residents assessed the damage to a skyscraper-lined city that once was West Africa's most prosperous due to Ivory Coast's position as the world's top cocoa producer.

''Everything is burned," said one woman, a teacher at a French school that was looted and torched in the anti-French riots. ''They have stolen everything they could."

French military planes yesterday flew home the bodies of the nine French soldiers killed in the bombing, along with 34 wounded soldiers.

France has more than 4,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, helping a 6,000-member UN force uphold what had been a more than one-year cease-fire in a civil war that broke out in September 2002. The cease-fire ended last week when the government opened three days of bombing of the rebel north.

At the United Nations, a draft Security Council resolution circulated yesterday called for an arms embargo on Ivory Coast and a travel ban and asset freeze against those blocking peace, violating human rights, and preventing the disarmament of combatants.

South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, was heading to Ivory Coast today for emergency talks.

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