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French Forces Destroy Ivory Coast Airforce, Take Control of Capital After Killing of 9 French Soldiers

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French armored vehicles take up positions in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan near the home of President Gbagbo on Monday as thousands of his supporters marched on the site, fearing an attempt to oust him. We speak with West African journalist, Abdoulaye Dukule. [includes rush transcript]

South African President Thabo Mbeki arrived in the Ivory Coast today to help find a solution to the political unrest in the West African country that has left up to 20 people dead and 700 wounded.

French forces moved to take control of the capital of Abidjan after chaos erupted in the world’s largest cocoa producer late last week when Ivorian warplanes launched a surprise airstirke in the northern part of the country that has been controlled by rebels since a failed attempt to oust President Laurent Gbagbo in 2002.

Nine French soldiers and an American civilian aid worker were killed in the attack. The government later called the bombing a mistake. France–which colonized the Ivory Coast for over half a century–has about 4,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast. The United Nations has about 6,000, manning a buffer zone between rebel north and government south.

France hit back within hours, wiping out Ivory Coast’s newly built-up air force — two Russian-made jet fighters and at least three helicopter gunships. Following the offensive, rioting and looting targeting French nationals and other foreigners left up to 700 people wounded and gutted homes and businesses. Over the weekend, French armored vehicles rolled through Abidjan after taking control of the international airport, bridges and other strategic points.

Fifty French armored vehicles took up positions near the home of President Gbagbo on Monday as thousands of his supporters marched on the site, fearing an attempt to oust him.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Abdoulaye Dukule, a journalist who covers the Ivory Coast extensively. His latest article published on the is called “Cote d’Ivoire: France, Gbagbo and the Rebels at War.” Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about the situation in the Ivory Coast right now?

ABDOULAYE DUKULE: I think right now things are calming down. I think last night U.N. troops and French and Ivorian troops were working hand in hand in Abidjan. People are returning to work, businesses are reopening. But that’s still — it doesn’t change the situation. Things are still tense. Now, the war is still going on because one side of the country, half of the country, is still under rebel control. So, therefore, the problem is still, you know, nothing has changed. If anything, it has become more complex, and probably maybe this may force a new solution, to probably disarm the rebels and then give peace a chance.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us the whole context of the Ivory Coast for people who hardly know it exists?

ABDOULAYE DUKULE: Well, Cote d’Ivoire, as I said, was a former French colony. Some people will say that it still is, because France has always dictated through the independence up to 1992 to 1996 or 2000, everything that went in Cote d’Ivoire, either political or economic decisions. And then 1999, there was a coup d’etat by one of — Houphouet-Boigny, the founder of the country’s former soldiers who came back to take power. Later on that year, they voted a new constitution, changed a few things, and then Gbagbo won the elections. Actually, the general wanted to steal the elections and Gbagbo came back, put the people in the streets, and then he would run out of the mansion. And in September, 19 — yeah, on September 19, 2002, a group of soldiers from the city of Bouake, which is the second largest city in the country, tried to overrun the government and take power, as they did a few years back. They fail. There was shootings, and the French people intervened and stopped them from entering Abidjan, and then they went back to the base in Bouake and sat there, and the French put buffers in between what I call the government forces and the rebel forces. And then, you know, you — and that led to the partition of the country, and peace talks, peace talk, peace talks, from Accra to Lome, from Lome to Dakar, and then to Paris, where they finally came up with an accord called “democracy accord.” And that accord said, well, that everybody will disarm, will be disarmed, and they will go to elections, as it said in the constitution, in 2005, and in the meantime, they will form a government of national unity, where the rebels will join the government. And there have been situations, but then the rebels have refused to disarm, asking for new laws. First, they get a total amnesty for whatever they did during the course of the war, I mean, the few days of fighting. And they said, well, now we have to change a few laws. They are in the constitution regarding land tenure and also Article 35, which stopped one of the main supporters from running for president, Alassane Ouattara. And I think last week, Gbagbo finally got impatient, because they went back to Accra actually, they went back to Accra in July and decided that, okay, we’re going to go back to the government, and disarming will take place at the end of October 15, and we will also discuss political issues in the meantime. Gbagbo said, that’s the elected president, said, you cannot change the constitution because somebody wants you to change it. You just can’t go back to take Article 35 and change it. We have to go through a forum to do it. And you cannot have a referendum while the country is divided. So, we have to first study disarmament process, reunify the country and then call for a national referendum on these things and then go to the elections. The rebels said no, they’re not going to do it, so — and then Gbagbo started to bomb and as you said in your news brief, that’s what happens, that’s where we are. And of course, the French people were happy to intervene because they used to give them a chance to not only take full control of the rebel movement, but also sort of weaken Gbagbo and take control over Abidjan, and now they can come up and have their own peace plan.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the significance of Ivory Coast being the largest cocoa producer in the world, producing something like 45% of the world’s cocoa?

ABDOULAYE DUKULE: Well, it’s significance of Cote d’Ivoire to France, it’s — you know, after independence Houphouet-Boigny followed the so-called — followed — Cote d’Ivoire, as I said, followed French policy, followed France. It became — the country became a showcase for France in Africa and also, you know, a stronghold. They have a military base. Most French African businesses have their headquarters in Cote d’Ivoire. Cote d’Ivoire is also a pole of attraction in West Africa. And I think it produces probably 40 to 50% of the G.N.P. of all the West African former French colonies. And they have the same currency, and Cote d’Ivoire is also the center of owning probably 80% to 90% of that money. So for the French in Africa, Cote d’Ivoire is probably the most important place beside Gabon, where they get oil. And I think that the fight is there between Gbagbo, who is opposed to Houphouet-Boigny French policies from the 1960s, now being president, and creating his own national policies. We talk about these airplanes being bombed. Funny now to hear the first time the Ivorian government has ever bought any arm, weapon from any other country beside France. So France went and destroyed them. You can see clarity, economically, between the conflict and all its military hardware. So, Ivory Coast is very important to France. If they were to lose Cote d’Ivoire, who knows? Tomorrow it could be Gabon, and then after it could be Senegal and that would be the end of the French colonial powers in Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Abdoulaye Dukule, I want to thank you for being with us, journalist who covers the Ivory Coast extensively, latest piece published in called “Cote d’Ivoire: France, Gbagbo and the Rebels at War.”

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