Ivory Coast claims success against rebels

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast -- Ivory Coast troops claimed successes Tuesday in an offensive to oust rebels who seized half the country -- even as insurgents captured another town.

Emboldened by official claims of victory, pro-government Ivorians attacked members of rival tribes and immigrants, accusing them of helping the rebels.

Army spokesman Col. Jules Yao Yao said government troops killed 11 rebels as they fought for Bouake, a city of 500,000 held by insurgents since a failed coup attempt Sept. 19. He said loyalists seized weapons and five 4-wheel-drive vehicles.

"Cleanup operations and actions to consolidate our positions are continuing," Yao Yao said on state television.

State radio said government troops were headed for Korhogo, a rebel stronghold in the north. The claim could not be independently verified.

The government continued to reinforce its troops. About 100 Ivorian soldiers in crisp new uniforms flew into the capital, Yamoussoukro, piled into pickup trucks and sped off. In villages on the route north to central Bouake, women in white robes and face-paint did traditional dances to bring victory to government troops.

State radio and television reports that Bouake had been recaptured from the rebels prompted celebrations Monday in Abidjan, the country's commercial center. But the government claims were disputed by Bouake residents, who said rebels still controlled most of the sprawling city, and by the French military, which is providing logistical support to government forces.

Sporadic gunfire continued throughout the day on the outskirts of Bouake, according to residents reached by telephone. One man said he saw a carload of rebels racing through the streets.

French military officials, who have a position on the edge of Bouake, said government forces on the city's eastern side advanced and pulled back again repeatedly during the day.

"The mutineers are still in Bouake," said one French officer who spoke on condition he not be named.

France has a 1,000-strong force in Ivory Coast, its former colony, to protect its 20,000 nationals and other foreigners. It is also providing vehicles, radios, food and other support for government forces.

Even as the government claimed successes in Bouake, witnesses said rebels made gains farther west.

Residents in Vavoua, 35 miles north of the central government stronghold of Daloa, said rebels entered the town Monday and took over a paramilitary police headquarters.

"We are pinned down," said a local pastor, who also did not want to be named. He said he saw around 40 rebels.

The rebels include a core group of 750-800 former soldiers, many dismissed from the army for suspected disloyalty. Their demands vary from reinstatement in the army to a new government.

The insurgents have held Bouake and Korhogo since the uprising began, gathering support from northerners. Northerners are predominantly Muslim and from different ethnic groups than the largely Christian southerners.

Ivory Coast is the world's leading producer of cocoa and a key West African port. The uprising has unleashed deadly regional, ethnic and religious hatreds in what was once a haven of stability and prosperity in otherwise troubled West Africa.

Many government supporters believe neighboring countries are behind the uprising and have started to vent their anger against immigrants. In Abidjan, authorities have torched shantytowns where many immigrants live in a campaign they say will clear away rebel hide-outs.

Ivorians whose homes were destroyed by fighting in Tiebissou, a town 25 miles north of Yamoussoukro, torched houses Tuesday in a nearby village that is home to immigrants from Burkina Faso and Mali and to some Ivorians. The attackers accused villagers of sheltering rebels, the burned-out residents said.

"We don't know what we are going to do," Mamadou Doumbia, a farmer from Burkina Faso, said as smoke billowed above the village. "We don't know where we are going to sleep."

In Yamoussoukro, angry youths from Abidjan ransacked shops in a primarily Muslim neighborhood and threatened to set fire to a mosque, one resident said. Neighborhood youths erected barricades to defend the building, and police fired tear gas and shots into the air to disperse the crowd, according to the resident, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

Nigeria's military, meanwhile, recalled three fighter jets sent in to support Ivorian authorities. Nigeria was among West African countries that tried to persuade both sides to sign a truce last week.

Ghana's foreign minister, Hackman Owusu Agyemang, said the West African envoys would likely return soon "if all goes well."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: