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Refugees pouring out of western Ivory Coast

Friday, December 6, 2002

BOGOUINE, Ivory Coast -- Thousands of fearful civilians fled Ivory Coast's hilly west Thursday, some crammed into rickety minibuses, others singing songs, as the army waged an all-out attack on the latest group of rebels to emerge in the fractured West African nation.

Hundreds of people walked down the heat-seared road south of Man, a key cocoa city that has seen some of the heaviest fighting in a two-month uprising that has exploded into a war between the government and two independent rebel groups.

"There are too many dead. You can't even count them," said Germaine Gahie, carrying a cloth bundle on her head.

Rebels have seized several towns in the west, including Danane, 50 miles south of Man. Farther south, authorities said "large-scale operations" were under way Thursday to dislodge rebels holding Toulepleu, near the border with Liberia.

Rebels seized Man last week, and government soldiers ousted them Sunday in a fierce assault with helicopter gunships and tanks. Fleeing residents said the streets were strewn with corpses.

"Most of them were rebels," said a woman who would only give her first name, Laure. Eight months pregnant, she stood by a thatch hut in Bogouine waiting for a place on a bus.

She said she recognized the rebel dead by the yellow or black headbands they wore. Residents said bodies were being collected and buried, but no official death toll has been given.

The rebel uprising began on Sept. 19 in Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer. The government holds the South, including the key port and economic hub of Abidjan; the insurgents behind the September uprising hold the North; and the new rebel force is battling the army in the West.

Soldiers at a roadblock four miles south of Man said Thursday they were still hunting rebels in the city.

Among those fleeing were children carrying schoolbags, elderly limping forward on swollen feet, young men singing "We want peace," and a man pushing an elderly woman perched on the back of a bicycle.

The refugees plodded past a bullet-ridden truck and two crashed vehicles. Bullet casings were scattered on the road.

Pickup trucks full of soldiers sped up and down the road, while cars flying white flags from the windows and antennas whizzed south.

Farther west, refugees straggled into Liberia across the Cestos River border. The United Nations says more than 30,000 have fled so far.

Refugees arriving in Liberia late Wednesday said at least one family -- one woman and 10 children -- drowned in recent days while fleeing.

Liberia was battered by a brutal seven-year civil war and is still torn by a rebellion. Many of those now returning fled to Ivory Coast, long one of West Africa's most stable nations, to escape the Liberian war.

Residents of Man and Danane have said they saw Liberian fighters with the rebels, but the insurgents deny the claim. Government officials say Liberian and Sierra Leonean mercenaries are in the region.

Samuel Gbeanqbe, a 17-year-old Liberian computer student, said he was forced to work as a cook for the rebels in Danane.

"Rebels were all over, entering shops and market stalls and looting," he said. Twenty rebels were killed by their commander for looting, he said.

A spokesman for Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, Toussaint Alain, said Thursday that the western rebels were "looting, raping and assassinating."

The western campaign came after fighting between government troops and northern-based rebels shattered an Oct. 17 cease-fire being monitored by a 1,000-strong French force.

Despite the fighting, peace talks between the northern rebels and the government continued in Lome, the capital of nearby Togo.

The northern rebels and the new insurgents insist they are fighting independently of one another.

The rebels in the predominantly Muslim North say they are battling discrimination by the government in the heavily Christian South.

The rebels in the West, meanwhile, says they are fighting to avenge the death of Ivory Coast's former junta leader, Gen. Robert Guei. He was killed in the first hours of the coup attempt, and had a large following in Ivory Coast's West.


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