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I. Coast protesters denounce deal

Protesters clash with French troops at Abidjan airport on Friday
Protesters clash with French troops at Abidjan airport on Friday

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Tens of thousands of protesters in Ivory Coast have taken to the streets to further denounce a French-brokered peace deal designed to bring an end to months of fighting between rebel and government forces.

"Ivory Coast stand up," chanted a crowd resplendent in the orange, white and green national colours.

Saturday's march in the capital, Abidjan, is the culmination of a week of protests against an agreement that President Laurent Gbagbo's supporters say was forced on him.

The peace deal was meant to end a conflict that threatens the region by giving key government positions to rebels and Gbagbo's political opponents, who dispute his victory in 2000 elections.

Student leader Charles Ble Goude said ahead of the march: "We say no to rebels in our government.

"For us it would be like handing over to bandits the keys to your house.

"This march will show our force, it will show that we are not just a handful of extremists."

The march came a day after more than 1,000 stone-throwing protesters laid siege to the city's main airport and in the wake of attacks by stone-throwing youths on the French embassy and an army base.

Reports also say that French nationals have been robbed, roughed up and spat on.

France has urged its 16,000 citizens in Ivory Coast to leave the country unless their presence there was essential.

The airport demonstration prevented the return home of new Prime Minister Seydou Diarra, who was named under the French accord.

Diarra, a widely respected former premier from the largely Muslim north who is seen as politically neutral, remains in Senegal's capital Dakar after a regional summit of West African leaders.

The summit has urged Gbagbo's government and the rebels to "work together to ensure the scrupulous application" of the accord.

Gbagbo is due to address the nation
Gbagbo is due to address the nation

Meanwhile, Gbagbo is due to address the nation about the accord.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said on Wednesday that the deal, which Gbagbo has played down and the Ivory Coast army has rejected, must remain the basis for any reconciliation between the government and rebel forces challenging it.

He said French soldiers were on alert but added France had to "avoid any slip-up that could set off a fire."

"Up until now, we have avoided the worst in Ivory Coast and we will work to ensure that the path of peace and reconciliation can be the one that is taken."

He added: "Let me tell you one thing -- whatever happens, even if we go through difficult moments in the coming days, that political accord will remain the basis for reconciliation among Ivorians. It's a balanced accord."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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