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No Withdrawal fom Ivory Coast, says French Minister - 2003-12-03

The French government said Wednesday it was closely following the growing violence in Ivory Coast. Protesters have demonstrated in the commercial capital, Abidjan for the third consecutive day to protest French military presence in the country. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said this week that French troops are staying put in Ivory Coast despite growing public opposition to their presence. He called on both sides to respect the peace agreement signed in Paris earlier this year.

He was responding to mounting unrest in Ivory Coast targeting the French peacekeeping troops deployed in the country.

Anti-riot police launched tear gas Wednesday as they battled young, stone throwing demonstrators near the Ivory Coast's capital of Abidjan. Some protesters threatened to kill French citizens if their demands were not met. French schools were closed in Abidjan, as a precautionary measure.

The demonstrations took place despite a ban against any gatherings, announced by Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo Tuesday. This week's riots have sparked fears the country was heading toward a new wave of turmoil. Most of the demonstrators are considered to be President Gbagbo's supporters.

France has 4,000 troops stationed in Ivory Coast to help enforce a January peace agreement between the government and rebels who control the northern half of the country. French forces are working alongside one thousand West African peacekeepers.

But for months, both government and rebel forces have accused Paris of supporting the other side. The latest pro-government demonstrators want French troops to retreat from a cease-fire line. They have threatened to target some 16 thousand French civilians who live in Ivory Coast, once a hub of peace and economic power in West Africa.

Relations between France and the Ivorian government worsened after the killing of French radio correspondent Jean Helene last month, allegedly by a police officer. French President Jacques Chirac demanded what he called exemplary justice from the Ivorian government.