France Adds Military in Ivory Coast
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YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast (AP) _ France deployed scores more soldiers to Ivory Coast on Tuesday, bolstering a Western military machine of U.S. special forces, the Foreign Legion and others ahead of threatened full-scale war between loyalist and rebel forces.
As West African envoys sought rebel leaders to try to negotiate a peace deal, there were growing indications the formidable French presence in itself was helping to stall the showdown in what was already the former French colony’s deadliest uprising.
Rebel officials, pushing south from northern strongholds since the Sept. 19 rebellion, said French forces were all that barred their drive to the country’s central capital, Yamoussoukro. The rebel officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
``It is possible that indirectly we have contributed to freezing the situation,″ French Lt. Col. Ange-Antoine Leccia acknowledged in Yamoussoukro _ adding that this affects loyalist troops as well as the insurgents.
Rebels seized Bouake, Ivory Coast’s second-largest city, and Korhogo when they launched their uprising with a bloody coup attempt. Hundreds died in the first days alone. Rebel advances since have divided Ivory Coast into government- and rebel-held zones, without any sign of a major government counterattack.
The insurgents, described by witnesses and Western observers as well-armed and disciplined, say they now also control the cities and towns of Odienne, Didievi, Tiebissou and Sakassou. The government insists it still holds Tiebissou and Sakassou.
France’s military announced in Paris that it was sending 70 more paratroopers to the country, in addition to more than 650 French troops regularly based here and hundreds shifted from Gabon and other African countries since the crisis.
The troops will set up a tactical headquarters in the commercial capital, Abidjan, French army spokesman Col. Christian Batiste said in Paris.
``The decision to create a tactical ground headquarters was taken because the crisis looks set to continue,″ he said.
Western authorities have reported regular clashes between rebels and loyalists north of Yamoussoukro. Heavy gunfire was reported Tuesday near Tiebissou, 25 miles north of Yamoussoukro.
U.S. and French forces are deployed by the hundreds in Yamoussoukro, making the capital their base for any missions to rescue foreigners.
French army officials in the region have repeatedly said they are not intervening in the conflict, but are simply assuring the safety of foreign nationals.
Western diplomats, however, said French forces have started providing tactical advice to government troops since agreeing to a request from Ivory Coast for logistical support.
Diplomats said support was likely to include vehicles, communications, and other material, including food and uniforms.
Forces of the French Foreign Legion have been newly visible in the area.
West African foreign ministers sought contact with the shadowy rebels to find a peaceful way out of the conflict. In a first step, ministers from Nigeria, Ghana and Togo, held talks with President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan overnight Monday to early Tuesday.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, secretary-general of a West African economic bloc that mandated the peace mission, said the team hoped to make contact with the rebels by Wednesday.
Chambas said an initial meeting with insurgents, possibly in a rebel-held city, would be held as a confidence-building measure and to prepare for a meeting with regional heads of state.
``The heads of state are committed to meet with the rebels to show how seriously we take the situation and to show them that the process will be undertaken at a high enough level to ensure that whatever is agreed will not be an empty agreement,″ Chambas told The Associated Press.
He also said it appeared the insurgents _ who include a core group of 750-800 soldiers angry over their dismissal from the army _ were not allied to any political group and do not have any larger political agenda.
``We are hoping that this is the case because if it is, I think a solution will be easier,″ Chambas said.
Ivory Coast accuses outside forces of arming and funding the insurgents. The accusation is believed directed against neighboring Burkina Faso, which has denied the charge despite years of animosity.
Ivory Coast’s government has repeatedly pledged to rout the rebels. In Abidjan, government supporters announced a march for Wednesday to show their support for the army and Gbagbos regime.
Fearing full-scale battles, French and U.S. forces have evacuated 2,500 people _ mostly Westerners and other foreign nationals _ from the rebel-held cities of Bouake and Korhogo, and surrounding areas.
Foreign nationals are still trickling into Yamoussoukro from outlying regions. U.S. forces were trying to reach a lone American _ a female Peace Corps worker posted near a remote lake.
Richard Buangan, a Paris-based U.S. diplomat helping coordinate the evacuations, said embassy staff were trying to contact about 70 U.S. citizens, mostly missionaries, to check on them and advise some to move to more secure areas.