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Private Sector in Ivory Coast Blames Government, Army for Looting

Leaders of the private sector in Ivory Coast have blamed the government for the widespread looting against their businesses earlier this month. They accused the government of encouraging the lawlessness, while alleging security forces took part.

Several-hundred private-sector company executives gathered in Abidjan, accusing the government of allowing the looting to take place during the anti-French protests.

The head of the Ivory Coast Chamber of Commerce and Industry, dual Ivorian-French citizen Jean-Louis Billon, said security forces actually participated in the four days of rampage, November 6-9.

He said businesses became victims of those from which they sought protection. Mr. Billon recovered his stolen car at a police station near his home. He also said calls by the Ivory Coast government for business to resume as normal are insufficient, until firm guarantees are made for adequate security.

Several business leaders testified, such as Ali Omao, whose looted jewelry store he says was mistaken for a French company because of its French sounding name. He alleges security forces helped shoot down the gates to the store and that some of them left military hats behind after taking away precious stones.

Other executives accused state television of encouraging the looting by delivering repeated hate messages against the former colonial power, France. They also said it appeared the looting was a calculated operation, rather than spontaneous.

Total damage is not yet known. Several-hundred stores, business offices, and warehouses, most of them French-owned, were totally destroyed in Abidjan and several other southern cities under government control. The Orange Cellular Phone headquarters was smashed.

The looting followed France's decision to destroy Ivorian military aircraft, after Ivorian planes killed nine French soldiers in an attack that violated a cease-fire in the rebel-held north.

Two government ministers listened to the complaints from the business community, but denied the government had anything to do with the looting.

Reconciliation Minister Dano Dje Dje expressed dismay at the events, and said the government will do everything in its power to restore confidence.

The French head of an association for small and medium sized businesses, advertising executive Pierre Daniel Brechat, said the meeting could help reverse the situation. "For the first time, businessmen have talked with sincerity, directly and we have told the truth to the authorities of Cote d'Ivoire and hope that the government will give us also confidence to work and to do our job in Ivory Coast," he said.

Mr. Brechat said that out of 500 businesses in his association more than 100 were looted, most of them French-owned. He says 30,000 Ivorian former employees are now out of work.

Since the looting took place, about 9,000 French nationals have been evacuated. An estimated 5,000 French nationals remain, but many, who are business owners, are now evaluating whether they should also leave.

The looting occurred as the government and rebels have failed to implement a U.N.-backed peace deal to reunite Ivory Coast, formerly West Africa's economic engine - much of it driven by French-owned businesses.