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Unrest Halts Cocoa Exports

Deadly violence in Ivory Coast has shut down cocoa exports in the world's largest producer, closing ports that ship more than 40 percent of the world's raw material for chocolate, cocoa traders said Tuesday.

Clashes that have pitted Ivory Coast's government and supporters against French forces come at the peak of Ivory Coast's main harvest, last year a record of 1.4 million tons.

Meanwhile, South African President Thabo Mbeki flew to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to launch an African effort to rein in chaos here amid four days of government and street-level confrontations with French troops that have wounded more than 600 and left at least 20 dead.

The country's two main ports, in Abidjan and San Pedro, have been closed since Saturday afternoon, traders and other officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Cocoa buyers are not venturing out into the bush to buy cocoa, they said.

"Not at all," one trader in Abidjan said by telephone. "Even in the bush, you can't get the cocoa from the farmers" because of the turmoil.

Cocoa workers in the cities, like most other residents of Ivory Coast's southern population centers, are staying inside their homes for fear of street violence.

Cocoa futures on the International Finance Futures and Options Exchange climbed sharply Monday over the unrest in Ivory Coast, but eased back Tuesday.

Ivory Coast normally produces 80 percent of its cocoa between October and January. Cocoa production is centered in the southwest, the base of Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo's ethnic group and in recent years scene of some of the worst political violence.

The U.N. Security Council, African Union, European Union and a bloc of West African leaders have all condemned President Laurent Gbagbo's government in the violence, which began when Ivory Coast warplanes killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker in an airstrike on the rebel-held north.

France, Ivory Coast's former colonial ruler, wiped out the nation's air force in retaliation, sparking massive anti-French rampages by mobs of thousands in the fiercely nationalist south.

About 1,000 loyalists on Tuesday were maintaining a standoff outside a hotel commandeered by the French military.

Some of the 1,300 French and other foreign civilians evacuated from their homes by the French military amid looting and burning stared out at the protesters from a protective ring of barbed wire around the hotel.

"We are not going to leave," one loyalist outside the French temporary base said, adding that protesters would take shifts to eat. "If I get the French, I can eat them," he said.

Protesters tried at one point Tuesday morning to pull down the barbed wire around the French evacuation point but scattered when two French snipers moved forward and drew beads on them.

After securing Abidjan's airport and bridges over the weekend, French forces on Tuesday appeared to have withdrawn from at least one main bridge in the lagoon-bordered city.

Top Ivory Coast and French generals jointly appealed on Monday for protesters to go home despite a day of urgent alarms on state radio and TV asking loyalists to mass at Gbagbo's home and a nearby broadcast center.

The TV and radio appeals came after French armored vehicles moved into position Monday at the commandeered Hotel Ivoire, with one armored vehicle at one point making a wrong turn and approaching Gbagbo's house directly, the French acknowledged.

"Everything should go back to normal. ... It is absolutely not a matter of ousting President Laurent Gbagbo," French mission commander Gen. Henri Poncet said on state TV, alongside Ivory Coast army chief of staff Gen. Mathias Doue.

French leaders have said they hold Gbagbo — installed in an uprising by his supporters in 2000, after an aborted vote count in presidential elections — personally responsible in the airstrike Saturday and subsequent anti-foreigner rampages.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, after a visit Monday to wounded French servicemen flown to Paris for medical care, said their eyewitness accounts suggested the attack was premeditated.

"They all told me that the Ivorian plane passed two times over the (French military base) building and fired on the third pass," she told reporters at St. Mande military hospital outside Paris.

At the United Nations, Security Council diplomats late Monday weighed a French-backed draft resolution for an arms embargo on Ivory Coast and a travel ban and asset freeze against those blocking peace, violating human rights, and preventing the disarmament of combatants.

France has 4,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, where a civil war launched in September 2002 has left the world's top cocoa producer split between rebel north and loyalist south.

About 6,000 U.N. troops are also deployed to man a buffer zone and try to keep the peace in West Africa's former economic powerhouse, seen as vital to regional efforts to recover from 1990s civil wars.

The bombing of the French military post Saturday came on the third day of Ivory Coast airstrikes on rebel positions, breaking a more than year-old cease-fire.

The African Union dispatched Mbeki with a mandate to seek a political solution.

Red Cross official Kim Gordon-Bates told The Associated Press that rampages in Abidjan alone had injured more than 600. Loyalist mobs on Monday blocked to set up an emergency clinic for the injured, he said.

Only partial death tolls are available, but at least 20 people had been killed — the 10 foreigners killed in the airstrike on Saturday, five loyalist protesters whose bodies were shown on state TV over the weekend, and five other fatally wounded protesters brought to two hospitals on Monday.

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