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French Forces in Ivory Coast Deny Shooting Protesters

French authorities are denying their troops in Ivory Coast killed anybody as thousands of anti-French demonstrators gathered in front of a hotel in Abidjan Tuesday.

The French military says it was the demonstrators who opened fire as a French convoy left the area. It said Ivorian security forces returned the fire.

The protesters are blaming the French troops for the casualties. At least four people are reported killed and more than 100 others injured.

The Ivorian government has not commented.

Meanwhile, VOA correspondent Nico Colombant reports that South African President Thabo Mbeki arrived in Ivory Coast to help end the civil war. He arrived after several days of mob violence in the government-held south and escalating tensions between the Ivorian military, youth activists and the French rapid reaction force.

Mr. Mbeki says he humbly accepted the request by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African states to intervene in Ivory Coast.

The leader of the so-called Young Patriots, who has organized massive protests against the French and rebels, Charles Ble Goude, called on his followers to give Mr. Mbeki an overwhelming reception.

He says Mr. Mbeki long fought against apartheid and that he could understand the suffering of Ivorians, as they faced oppression.

Four years ago, Mr. Mbeki had called on Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo to organize new elections that included all candidates, because he had won a poll which had excluded main opposition leaders.

This is what northern-based rebels have been asking for since their insurgency started in late 2002. Their leader, Guillaume Soro, said Mr. Gbagbo could not be counted on as a reliable negotiating partner.

He says Mr. Gbagbo cannot even control what happens in Abidjan. Rebels have refused to disarm, accusing Mr. Gbagbo of blocking implementation of several peace deals.

The Young Patriots have gathered, protectively, around the presidential residence and state television, to head off what they fear would be a coup, backed by French forces.

The spokesman for the Ivory Coast armed forces Jules Yao Yao had asked the Young Patriots to help out.

He said joint patrols between the Ivorian army, U.N. peacekeepers and the French forces were starting. French forces have also been deploying heavily, since Sunday, in the streets of Abidjan.

Meanwhile, foreigners have started giving protection money to roaming bands of youths to avoid being robbed. Many French-owned businesses and homes were ransacked during the violence.

More than 2,000 foreigners have been evacuated to the man French barracks in the city. Hundreds of Ivorians are receiving treatment at hospitals for injuries sustained during the protests.

Tensions escalated, Saturday, when the Ivorian army bombed a French base, killing nine French soldiers. France retaliated by destroying all Ivorian military and government aircraft, which then prompted the mob violence in Abidjan.

The tensions have sent cocoa prices on world markets to 19-month highs. Ivory Coast, a former French colony, is the world's leading cocoa producer.