ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) – France defended itself Friday against accusations by Ivory Coast authorities – and some Western evacuees – that it used excessive force in protecting foreigners against violent mobs during five days of upheaval in its former West African colony.

Ivorian government forces withdrew from rebel positions Friday, easing fears of a resumption of all-out civil war, as France and other countries continued to fly out thousands of foreigners.

The head of France’s armed forces, Gen. Henri Bentegeat, acknowledged for the first time Friday that his soldiers opened fire to hold back what he called a “pack of looters, rapists and uncontrollable or manipulated people” attacking foreigners in Abidjan.

But he told Europe-1 radio the soldiers did “the absolute minimum” in self-defense and claimed gunmen in the crowds killed “a very large number” of people.

At least three European women were raped during the rioting, French community representative Catherine Rechenmann told France-Inter radio Thursday.

National Reconciliation Minister Dano Djedje reacted angrily to Bentegeat’s comments. “France has used extreme violence against unarmed demonstrators … and they should take responsibility for it,” he told The Associated Press.

Presidential spokesman Desire Tagro claimed Friday that 62 loyalists died in the turmoil unleashed Nov. 6 by a deadly Ivory Coast airstrike on French peacekeepers in the rebel-held north. The attack killed nine peacekeepers and an American aid worker.

France responded by wiping out the country’s air force, after which loyalist youths in the south took to the streets of Abidjan and other cities armed with machetes, iron bars and clubs. France and other nations began flying out foreigners Wednesday.

By midday Friday, 2,192 of the 14,000 French citizens here had left the country along with scores from Spain, Germany, the United States and other countries, French officials said.

About 400 British military personnel helped airlift expatriates out Friday. Two Royal Air Force Hercules airplanes landed in nearby Ghana, carrying about 200 people to safety, a ministry spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

He said the rescue was expected to last “days rather than weeks.”

President Laurent Gbagbo’s office issued a statement Friday urging foreigners to stay and saying it was taking steps to assure their safety.

Some evacuees echoed the Ivory Coast government’s complaints of excessive force. An American restaurant worker and other witnesses said French helicopters fired on demonstrators in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

“Man, we heard of a lot of Ivorian friends dying,” the worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Hospital officials and AP journalists have confirmed 27 deaths and more than 1,000 injured in the past week, but that count likely is a partial one.

An Ivorian journalist, Antoine Masse, was among those killed during a confrontation Sunday involving the Ivorian army, demonstrators and French forces west of Abidjan, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Ivory Coast’s military launched an inquiry Friday into the airstrike that sparked the violence, saying it hoped to “establish the truth” of who was to blame. Ivorian officials have alternated between denying responsibility for the attack and saying it was a mistake.

Bentegeat said he was “certain” the attack was deliberate. Planes had been circling for two days, he said. “There was no error possible.”

An uneasy calm returned to the country Thursday. U.N. peacekeepers said government troops had withdrawn beyond the zone separating the government-held south and rebel-held north, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York. In Abidjan, shops reopened and traffic returned to the streets.



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