Envoys work to close cease-fire in Ivory Coast

Saturday, October 5, 2002

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast -- West African peacemakers struggled to hold together a cease-fire deal Friday in divided Ivory Coast -- while rebels accused loyalists of readying their long-threatened counterattack under cover of truce talks.

One of the top mediators said the agreement would be signed Saturday in the town of Tiebissou, 20 miles north of the capital Yamoussoukro. There was no immediate comment from the government.

Loyalist soldiers piled in the backs of pickup trucks and rolled out in numbers. French troops and French armored personnel carriers reinforced positions along the front line, poised to safeguard foreign nationals in this former French colony.

At the front-line town of Tiebissou, residents of northern neighborhoods said the loyalist soldiers told them to pack up and move south, warning there would be "stray bullets."

"Everyone is terrorized," said Mathias Nguessan, who sells cold drinks in the town. "Even the chickens have fled. I hope the leaders find a solution. Otherwise, there will be no Ivory Coast left."

A day after a cease-fire was announced, Friday's scheduled signing ceremony was delayed as West African negotiators tried to work out the details of the deal. The government reportedly was troubled by language calling for the deployment of troops from neighboring nations.

It was unclear Friday whether loyalist forces were moving to secure territory -- or reclaim it.

Rebel officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed loyalist forces were readying for an offensive to retake Ivory Coast's second-largest city, Bouake, even as truce talks played out.

President Laurent Gbagbo's government up to now has failed to make good on repeated pledges of a major counteroffensive to rout the rebels.

Insurgents, including a core group of ex-soldiers dismissed from the army for suspected disloyalty, have seized half of Ivory Coast since they began their rebellion Sept. 19 with a failed coup attempt.

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