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Ivory Coast Rebels Fire on French Forces

January 6, 2003

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Rebel factions in western Ivory Coast fired mortars at French forces Monday, just days after northern rebels agreed to obey a cease-fire and resume peace talks with the government.

The attacks dented hopes of a swift end to the three-month conflict, which has divided the country, killed hundreds of people, caused thousands to flee their homes and threatened West Africa’s already tenuous stability.

The western rebels _ less dominant than the northern insurgents _ have not agreed to a truce and did not meet with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin during his weekend visit to the former French colony.

On a whirlwind trip, De Villepin won agreement from the northern faction and from President Laurent Gbagbo to stop fighting and resume negotiations Jan. 15 in Paris.

Monday’s fighting erupted near Duekoue, a strategic town at the junction of two main roads leading to the central city of Daloa and the coastal port of San Pedro, French forces said.

Maj. Frederic Thomazo had no immediate information on casualties.

Rebel leader Sgt. Felix Doh said he ordered attacks because Ivorian government forces bombed his positions Saturday and Sunday. He did not elaborate.

Doh’s faction, unlike the northern rebels, has vowed to advance on the financial capital Abidjan, the key to seizing control of the country.

``I have ordered my men to attack everywhere and to head for Abidjan,″ Doh told The Associated Press by satellite telephone.

French army spokesman Col. Christian Baptiste said Monday’s attacks showed that at least some of the western rebels ``don’t seem to associate themselves at all″ with the decisions taken by the northern faction.

``We are asking ourselves lots of questions about the number of uncontrolled groups in this region,″ he said in Paris. ``The objectives pursued by one seem to be different from those pursued by another.″

Rebels have clashed several times near Duekoue with French troops, sent to protect French citizens and other foreigners in the rich cocoa- and coffee-producing west. The French are dug in around the town, manning checkpoints with anti-tank missiles and rocket launchers.

Thomazo said fighting started on the road north from Duekoue to the rebel-held city of Man, some 57 miles away. Another group of rebels attacked a second French position northeast of Duekoue, near the village of Blodi.

``The rebels fired mortars and we responded,″ Thomazo said. He had no further details.

Ivory Coast’s conflict began when rebels tried to oust Gbagbo on Sept. 19 and seized the northern half of the country. The northern rebels agreed a cease-fire with the government in October, but peace talks in nearby Togo yielded little, and fighting resumed within weeks.

The two other western factions emerged later, reportedly joined by fighters from neighboring Liberia notorious for drug use and extreme violence.

After French forces blocked an eastern advance, the western rebels began pushing south last week toward San Pedro. Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, and much of the rich harvest is shipped through San Pedro.

All the rebels want Gbagbo to resign, arguing in part that his government fans ethnic hatred. The government says that is out of the question and insists the rebels disarm.

France has more than 2,000 troops in Ivory Coast.

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