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Ivory Coast Cease-Fire Rejected

October 6, 2002

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YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Ivory Coast troops rushed north Sunday toward rebel-held areas and gunfire erupted in a city controlled by insurgents as the government rejected a cease-fire, raising fears of an all-out assault by the miltary.

``There’s firing all over the place,″ said a frightened resident cowering in her home in Bouake, Ivory Coast’s second city, which has been in rebel hands for over two weeks. Reached by phone, the woman said the shooting started Sunday afternoon and was still going on two hours later.

The new violence came as President Laurent Gbagbo told West African mediators that he would not sign a cease-fire with the rebellious soldiers who launched a coup attempt on Sept. 19 unless the insurgents disarm first.

``For the moment, they (Ivorian officials) will not sign. The cease-fire will not take place,″ Togo’s foreign minister, Koffi Panou, said after he and the other mediators met Gbagbo in Abidjan, the former French colony’s commercial center.

No government troops were immediately seen in Bouake, and rebel forces appeared to still control the central city, one of two cities the insurgents seized in the early days of the bloody failed coup. Since then, the insurgents have come to control most of the north.

Residents in various parts of Bouake reported hearing gunfire, though some said it later died down.

``We are lying on the floor under tables and beds,″ another frightened woman said as sporadic firing echoed in the background. ``We don’t know where this is going to end.″

In Tiebissou, a town that for days was on the frontline, truckloads of Ivorian soldiers were seen headed up the roads north toward Bouake and northwest toward Sakassou.

Capt. Loic Girard, a member of a contingent of French troops in Tiebissou, said a column of Ivorian troops left town Saturday night, joining reinforcements headed toward Bouake from the south.

French troops based further south at the capital, Yamoussoukro, did not immediately confirm fighting in the region. But Col. Frederic Thuet, in charge of French operations in and around Yamoussoukro, said that for the first time they did see about 300 Ivorian ground troops moving north Saturday night toward rebel-held areas.

The mediators, including foreign and defense ministers from six West African nations, have been trying for days to cobble together a cease-fire so the two sides can start negotiations to resolve the conflict.

The envoys said Saturday they had commitments from both sides to join a cease-fire. But though the rebels were ready to sign, but as mediators waited all day in Yamoussoukro the government failed to send authorization to its representative to sign.

Gbagbo’s administration appeared caught between West African heads of state pressing hard for a truce and popular pressure in the south of the country to rout out the rebels.

As efforts to get Gbagbo on board continued earlier Sunday, rebel officials said the government was preparing offensives against them.

Rebels _ who include a core group of 750-800 ex-soldiers, many dismissed from the army for suspected disloyalty _ claimed they repelled a government attack late Saturday at Seguela, a town about 60 miles west of Bouake.

The claims could not be independently verified. Government military officials could not be reached for comment, and phone lines to Seguela appeared to have been cut.

The French say they are there to protect foreign nationals and provide logistical support to the Ivorian army. French and U.S. troops have evacuated around 2,500 foreign nationals from rebel-held areas. French forces flew nine more people out of Bouake in helicopters Sunday, even as gunfire broke out in other parts of the city.

As government troops moved out of Tiebissou, residents emerged to discover that Ivorian forces had looted shops and restaurants. Shopkeepers recovered bags of sweets, jerry cans, pots, pans and other belongings from their pillaged stores and carted them home on wheelbarrows.

``We are living in fear,″ Narcisse Koffi, a 20-year-old student, said as pickup trucks with mounted guns and uniformed Ivorian soldiers raced past. ``We thought that with the negotiations, everything would be solved. But now we don’t know what’s going on.″

The uprising started Sept. 19 with a bloody failed coup attempt. The rebels have held Bouake and Korhogo, further north, since then, gathering support from northerners who complain that the southern-based government treats them as second-class citizens. Northerners are predominantly Muslim and from different ethnic groups than the largely Christian southerners

The rebels claim that only the formidable French military presence at Yamoussoukro is stopping them from marching on Abidjan.

Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer of cocoa and a key West African port. Its first-ever coup in 1999, amid an economic downturn, shattered four decades of stability rare for the turbulent region.

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