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Ivory Coast City Evacuees Describe Chaos

December 1, 2002

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ A foreigner evacuated from violence in western Ivory Coast said on Sunday that Liberians were involved in the chaos that has broken out in the formerly unaffected part of the country.

French forces flew 160 people, mostly French and Lebanese merchants and business people, from the key cocoa city of Man near the border with Liberia to Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan on Sunday.

``The groups from Liberia are unbearable,″ said Ashkar Louis Michel, a Lebanese man who has lived in the city for 38 years. ``They enter the homes and steal. The others don’t do that.″

Others among the refugees said Ivorian rebels had gunned down at least two Liberians who were caught looting.

``They were shooting in the streets,″ said Fatme Mhana, a Lebanese woman, her eyes wet with tears as her two daughters played in the hotel lobby. ``They weren’t just carrying pistols, they had big guns as well.

The order to evacuate Man, about 300 miles northwest of Abidjan, came after French troops fought a daylong battle for control of the airport with rebels who have emerged in the west.

One French soldier was injured and 10 rebels were killed, said Maj. Frederic Thomazo, a French army spokesman in government-held Daloa.

``Now that we have fulfilled our mission with the foreign nationals we are disengaging from the airport in Man,″ Thomazo said.

Ivory Coast, the world’s leading cocoa producer, now is split three ways as a two-month rebel uprising evolved into a multifronted war.

The government holds the south, including Abidjan, a regional financial hub and strategic port, while the rebels who launched the Sept. 19 uprising control the north.

The new insurgents, who appear to be from previously unknown groups seeking to avenge the recent death of former coup leader Gen. Robert Guei, emerged last week in the west and have occupied at least two towns.

The government of President Laurent Gbagbo says the insurgencies in the west and the north are related. The northern rebels deny any connection.

Western rebels calling themselves the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Greater West blamed the clashes on a ``misunderstanding.″

The statement issued Saturday said the insurgents wanted to avenge the death of Guei, who led Ivory Coast’s first-ever coup in 1999 and was fervently supported in the west of the country. The former junta leader was shot dead in the early hours of the latest failed coup.

The rebels also have occupied Danane, 40 miles west of Man, and claimed to have captured the nearby town of Toulepleu.

Government officials say there is a second group of western rebels, the previously unknown Movement for Justice and Peace, also believed to be Guei loyalists.

Government troops have been heading west under a presidential order to oust the rebels from the captured cities, but no fighting has been reported.

The conflict has fanned simmering ethnic tensions between northern and southern groups. The northern rebels say they are fighting against the discrimination against mainly Muslim northern tribes by Christian and animist southern groups that have traditionally dominated government.

The northern rebels and the army agreed to a cease-fire on Oct. 17, but it has crumbled in recent days.

French forces evacuated hundreds of French, American and other foreigners from rebel-held towns in the north at the start of the uprising.

At deadlocked peace talks in nearby Togo, the northern insurgents tabled amended proposals on Saturday they said would provide a basis for face-to-face talks. No details were available, and the government did not immediately comment.

The negotiations have stalled on rebel demands that Gbagbo resign.

Ivory Coast, which has a population of 19 million, is a regional economic power and home to many immigrants who work on the cocoa and coffee plantations.

It also has been a shelter for thousands of Liberians seeking refuge from a brutal seven-year war and rebellion. The U.N. refugee agency says around 47,000 Liberian refugees are in the western region, although many appear to be returning home.