Pro-government crowds take to streets of threatened city

Thursday, October 3, 2002

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Tens of thousands of angry government loyalists raced down the skyscraper-lined highways of Abidjan on Wednesday, waving sticks and shouting their rage at rebels advancing steadily south toward Ivory Coast's commercial capital.

Rebels were reported by U.S. military officials and diplomats to be newly in control of the northwest city of Seguela, 180 miles away. Residents there said rebel forces had entered the day before, attacking the paramilitary police's headquarters and the city courts.

Amid a West African-led peace effort, Ivory Coast's leaders "obviously are doing a lot of talking," said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And while they are talking, the rebels are making significant gains south."

Ivory Coast's rebels, including a core group of 750-800 soldiers dismissed from the army for suspected disloyalty, grabbed the leading northern and central cities of Korhogo and Boauke simultaneously with a bloody failed coup attempt Sept. 19 in Abidjan.

The well-armed, well-disciplined insurgents since have spread north and west, taking towns including Odienne and now Seguela. Their goal is Abidjan, the key to holding a country that remains one of the region's economic powerhouses.

Rebels say only a formidable French military presence at Yamoussoukro is blocking their drive south.

The roughly 1,000-strong French force has made Yamoussoukro, capital of the former French colony, its base for rescue missions and other deployments in the nation's deadliest uprising.

The French say they are there to protect foreign nationals and provide logistical support to the embattled government.

In Abidjan, demonstrators streamed along boulevards toward the heart of the city, once known as the Paris of West Africa for its chic boutiques and expensive restaurants. Many waved sticks, and others carried Ivory Coast's orange, white and green flag.

"We are ready to go and liberate Boauke!" the angry crowd shouted.

Youth leaders insisted they would march on Bouake themselves in a week if rebels remained in control of the city, Ivory Coast's second-largest, where a half-million people are struggling without water, electricity or fuel.

Protesters, some waving green branches or wearing leaves wrapped round their heads like traditional warriors, bellowed war chants or sang the national anthem.

Businesses and shops closed for fear of looting and bloody rampages that have broken out in recent years' pro-government rallies. Despite high tensions, there were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries.

Since the Sept. 19 coup attempt, paramilitary police and other loyalists have repeatedly burned hundreds out of shantytowns housing many of the city's Muslims from the north and from neighboring countries.

Since its first coup in 1999, Ivory Coast has accused neighboring Burkina Faso of fostering and funding unrest here.

"When we finish chasing the attackers out of the country, all the Burkinabes will have to go home," youth leader Charles Ble Goude yelled at Wednesday's crowd. The crowd chanted back "Today, today!"

In Seguela, wary civilians spent their first day under the expanding rebel control.

"There are not many of them, but they are well-armed. They are not harming civilians," one resident, reached by telephone, said. He did not want to give his name for safety reasons.

In eastern Ivory Coast, meanwhile, residents in the town of Bouna said rebels had entered town the night before, firing their weapons in the air and ransacking the police headquarters. The insurgents left Wednesday.

Witnesses have reported what appeared to be long-range exchanges of gunfire between French troops and rebel forces in the region around Yamoussoukro. French Lt. Col. Ange-Antoine Leccia did not confirm the reports, but said only, "When we are tested, we respond."

Loyalist forces claim they have inflicted serious defeats on the insurgents, although repeated government threats of all-out war on the rebels have yet to materialize.

French and American troops have evacuated around 2,500 foreign nationals from rebel-held areas, ferrying them through Yamoussoukro.

Squat C-130 cargo planes took the majority of U.S. troops out of Yamoussoukro on Wednesday. Their gear and Humvees left with them. U.S. authorities did not say where the Americans were headed.

The U.S. focus is now swinging to Abidjan, to assist Americans there who want to leave, said Richard Buangan, a Paris-based American diplomat helping coordinate the evacuations.

Many U.S. citizens have so far declined to leave Abidjan, doubting the fighting will reach here. There are 2,000 Americans in Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, and a base of multinational companies.

High-ranking regional envoys met in Abidjan on Wednesday, to try to build on a first telephone contact with the rebels.

"Yesterday, we made initial contact with the rebels. We agreed to talk some more today and try to arrange a meeting," said Mohamed Ibn Chambas, secretary-general of a West African economic bloc that mandated the regional peace mission.

Bloc official Cheick Diarra told The Associated Press that mediators and rebels were due to meet Thursday. He said foreign ministers would try to establish contact with the rebels early Thursday to work out the details of the meeting. He did not elaborate.

Ivory Coast's government has been receptive to peace efforts, but mediators apparently have had difficulty simply identifying and contacting rebel leaders.

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