Rebels call for volunteers

Thursday, December 12, 2002

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Rebels urged volunteers to join their ranks Wednesday, a day after thousands of young men rallied to the government's side, shouting their readiness to fight in Ivory Coast's escalating civil war.

Northern-based rebels declared the government's southern economic hub of Abidjan "a war zone," saying the move was in response to the army's appeal for 3,000 volunteers.

The government call-to-arms was answered eagerly in Abidjan by thousands of young men, who mobbed army barracks to enlist Tuesday. But an opposition political group said the call-up was a ploy by President Laurent Gbagbo's governing party to legalize loyalist militias.

The rebel statement called on all Ivorians aged 21-35 and all demobilized military officers "to participate in the liberation of Ivory Coast" by signing up at command posts in rebel-held northern cities.

Rebels previously claimed to have infiltrated Abidjan -- once known as the Paris of West Africa for its restaurants and chic boutiques.

Ivory Coast's descent into chaos began with an uprising by the northern-based rebels on Sept. 19. Since then, two new rebel factions have emerged in the west. The government holds the south, including Abidjan.

The rebel factions deny any links, but government officials say they are working together. All want Gbagbo to resign.

The rebellion, following the former French colony's first-ever coup in 1999, has splintered a nation that stood for decades as the region's most stable and prosperous, and is the world's largest cocoa producer.

A 1,000-strong French force has evacuated hundreds of foreigners from the country, while thousands of Africans have fled on their own, spilling over into impoverished neighboring countries.

France announced Wednesday it would send in more soldiers to protect its nationals and other foreigners from the escalating violence, but did not specify how many troops would be sent in.

The Ivory Coast army went on the offensive in the rich, cocoa-producing west, where rebels have seized a string of towns in some of the fiercest fighting of the nearly three-month uprising.

Government soldiers in the western town of Guiglo advanced 41 miles on Tuesday, capturing Blolekin on the road to rebel-held Toulepleu, near the Liberian border, a military official said on condition of anonymity.

The same day, insurgents captured two aid workers for Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders. Officials with the French charity gave no details of the incident, but said they were in touch with the captives, who were being released Wednesday.

Peace talks between the northern rebels and government in nearby Togo have been deadlocked for weeks. Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who is mediating the talks, was due to visit Abidjan on Thursday to meet the country's main political parties.

The northern rebels released what they said was a copy of a political document to be signed by the parties during Eyadema's visit, saying it was "nothing more than a rework" of a draft accord the insurgents previously refused to sign in Togo.

The document says the government has the right to rule over the entire territory of Ivory Coast, and calls on rebels to leave occupied cities and disarm.

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