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Ivorian Forces Break Rebel Lines

West Africa: Officials say they are close to reclaiming a city seized at the uprising's start. Insurgents near a key cocoa producing center.

October 08, 2002|From Times Wire Services

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast — Heavy explosions and the crackle of machine guns terrified residents of Ivory Coast's second-largest city Monday as government forces smashed through rebel lines in a long-promised offensive against the insurgents, who have seized half the country.

Encouraged by government advances on the eastern side of Bouake, young people with sticks and stones chased heavily armed rebel fighters through the streets and set fire to the bodies of four rebels, a witness said.

The government said it hoped to liberate Bouake, a rebel-held city of 500,000, within 24 hours. As night fell, government officials claimed to have recaptured Bouake--even as heavy firing continued. French military officials said rebels still controlled the north of the city. The rebels, who seized Bouake in a failed coup attempt Sept. 19, said they were holding their ground.

The government had been promising an all-out offensive for more than a week. It began Sunday--even as West African mediators struggled to save a proposed cease-fire.

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

The rebels have held Bouake and Korhogo, in the far north, since the start of the uprising, gathering support from northerners who say the government treats them as second-class citizens. The occupation has stirred anger in the government's southern strongholds.

Elsewhere on Monday, rebel forces advanced to the town of Vavoua, within 40 miles of the world's biggest cocoa producer. Ivory Coast's crisis has pushed cocoa prices above 16-year highs.

The insurrection has heightened ethnic tension in the polarized country of 16 million.

The army holds the mainly Christian south, where people are opposed to any deal with the rebels who hold the Muslim north.

France has given what it describes as logistic support to the army and has more than 1,000 troops in its former colony to protect foreigners.

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