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Standoff in Ivory Coast Leaves 50 Dead, Official Says

The civilians were killed by French troops during three days of violence that began after Ivorian troops fired on French peacekeepers during an air raid.

“We have counted around 50 people dead,” said National Reconciliation Minister Sebastien Dano, according to Reuters. “All of them were demonstrators shot by the French.”

While no independent confirmation was available Tuesday, one hospital in the Southern city of Abidjan said 18 people had died there, Reuters reported.

The melee in the former French colony that has been overcome by five years of civil unrest started Saturday in the rebel-held town of Bouake. Members of the Ivorian military launched an air raid on the town in an effort to remove insurgents who currently control much of the country’s northern region, Reuters reported. The strike killed three French peacekeepers patrolling the area.

Though Ivorian officials claimed the incident was an accident, French President Jacque Chirac ordered return air strikes on the Ivorian air force that destroyed 25 of its Sukhoi fighters and five helicopters.

In response, large crowds of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo supporters took to the streets in an effort to provide a “human shield” for their president, according to the BBC, and some 10,000 people marched on Abidjan’s main airport currently under French control.

“They are trying to stage a coup d’etat against Ivory Coast,” one demonstrator told Reuters. “We are opposed. We are all going to the head of state’s residence to form a barricade.”

Groups of militants also attacked French and other foreign nationals in Abidjan, prompting French troops to airlift those under siege in one apartment building out of danger, Reuters reported. Some 2,000 foreigners also have taken shelter in French and U.N. bases.

French officials said Monday they had no plans to evacuate French citizens from Ivory Coast but that the situation remained “extremely fragile,” according to Reuters.

On Tuesday, South African President Thabo Mbeki arrived in Ivory Coast at the backing of the African Union to meet with Gbagbo to help restore peace, the BBC reported.

Meanwhile, in the town of Gagnoa, a major center in the world’s largest cocoa producer, a curfew was imposed after four people died in clashes between farmers and residents, Reuters reported.

The most recent violence in Ivory Coast extends from a five-year-old conflict started in 1999 when rebels staged a coup against then-president Konan Bedi. Since then two other attempts to replace the government and an uprising following the 2000 elections have led to tension between Gbagbo’s mainly Christian supporters in the south and rebels in the Muslim north.

As part of a fragile peace deal brokered by the French in 2003, some 4,000 French and U.N. peacekeepers are stationed in the country.

But, both Gbagbo and the rebels have accused France of supporting the other side, according to BBC reports, and Ivorian nationalists have accused France of plotting to overthrow Gbagbo’s government.

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