- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (Agence France-Presse) The Ivorian army said yesterday that it had recaptured a western town from new insurgent forces who seemed to be merging with the main rebel group, while more Western embassies advised their citizens to leave the Ivory Coast.

Military sources said that the army won back the small town of Blolekin from rebels in heavy fighting close to the Liberian border. The town had been taken on Saturday by the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West (MPIGO), which began an offensive in the west on Nov. 28, worsening the 12-week-old crisis triggered by uprisings in key towns.

The MPIGO and the aligned Movement for Peace and Justice (MJP) took several towns, including Man, the main town in western Ivory Coast, and Toulepleu, about 40 miles from Blolekin.

In Paris yesterday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that France would immediately increase its troop strength in its troubled former African colony. The spokesman added that France is willing to host a summit of the leaders of all African countries affected by the situation, and is ready to organize a parallel meeting bringing together all sides involved in the Ivory Coast conflict.

The Dutch and German embassies told their nationals to leave Ivory Coast "as soon as possible," for fear that the military situation would worsen as fighting escalated. The British and the Belgian embassies issued similar warnings on Tuesday. The United States had urged Americans to leave as early as Sept. 26.

In recent days, the rebels have advanced toward the town of Guiglo, on the way to Ivory Coast's second port of San Pedro, which the rebels have vowed to take.

The Ivorian army, fighting with the help of foreign mercenaries, has sent strong reinforcements to the western front, including tanks, according to local press reports.

Half of Ivory Coast has fallen to rebel forces since army mutineers and former soldiers rose up on Sept. 19, and the conflict is threatening to intensify.

Meanwhile, despite denials, the two new rebel groups in the west appear to have joined forces with the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI), which began the mutiny and rapidly captured the northern half of the world's No. 1 cocoa-producing nation.

An MJP officer told AFP that they were waiting for rocket launchers and communications equipment to arrive from Bouake, the MPCI stronghold.

The western rebels say that they swear allegiance to President Laurent Gbagbo's predecessor, Robert Guei, a one-time armed forces chief who grabbed power for 10 months in a Christmas Day coup in 1999. Mr. Guei was suspected of masterminding the September uprising and was shot dead, with his wife and some of his aides, the day it began.

The MPCI also groups many soldiers who were close to Mr. Guei. One of them, Lt. Simplice Dieu Tieu, told AFP: "We are also fighting for the right of the Yakubas [Gueis ethnic group] to live normally in Ivory Coast."

In contrast to the MPCI and the MJP, members of the two-week-old MPIGO refuse to say who their leaders are. Its members are clad mostly in civilian gear, and only about one in 10 carries a combat weapon. The rest are armed with hunting rifles.

The MPIGO seems to have garnered no support in the territory they control in towns such as Biankouma most shops have closed and the atmosphere is tense.

In Abidjan, about 3,000 frenzied volunteers responded Tuesday to a call to arms in support of the embattled Gbagbo government. Excited young men aged 20 to 26 thronged the Defense Ministry, many wearing the Ivorian tricolor as bandannas, others with the flag emblazoned on T-shirts bearing messages such as "My country will be the victor!"

The crowd was high on enthusiasm, but low on discipline a fact pointed out to them by Lt. Col. Jules Yao Yao, spokesman for the Ivorian chief of staff. "The army means discipline," he said. "We cannot send indisciplined young men to fight to the death."

Col. Yao Yao told the volunteers that the enlistment process would begin today.

On Monday, Mr. Gbagbo held one-to-one talks with his Togolese counterpart, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who has been mandated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to resolve the insurgency.

The conflict, which already has claimed hundreds of lives, has been complicated by the discovery last week of two mass graves thought to contain the bodies of nearly 200 victims.

The MPCI has confirmed the existence of a mass grave in Bouake, which has served as the group's headquarters since the revolt started. It said that the grave contained bodies of fighters from both sides felled in battle.

The other grave in the western village of Monoko-Zohi was filled with bodies of those who were robbed, then executed by government troops when they briefly took the hamlet, the rebels said.

A week ago, French troops found "a mound 30 [yards] long and two [yards] high from which bodies protruded," Lt. Col. Ange-Antoine Leccia told AFP.

A villager had alerted French soldiers policing the tattered cease-fire near Monoko-Zohi, about 45 miles from the town of Daloa. Boureima Ouedraogo, a leader of the Burkinabe immigrant community in the village, told AFP that the mass grave contained mostly bodies of West African immigrants killed by "men in uniform" when the Ivorian army briefly captured the area from rebels on Nov. 29.

The rebels have, however, not reacted to a report by missionaries who said that a resident of Bouake told them that he helped bury 86 persons in a mass grave in that rebel-held town, and that the victims were government soldiers and gendarmes.

France demanded on Tuesday an "international investigation to establish responsibilities in incontestable fashion" and said that those behind the massacres should be punished.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, meanwhile, lodged a protest in Geneva after a ferry it used to take Liberians back to their country from western Ivory Coast was destroyed by the Ivorian army.

"We were told that the ferry was destroyed to prevent potential future intrusion of rebels into Ivory Coast," spokesman Kris Janowski said. Liberia closed its border with Ivory Coast last week, but said that it would let in refugees fleeing the conflict there.

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