Ivory Coast cease-fire hangs in the balance

West African peace-makers struggled to hold together a

cease-fire deal on Friday in rebellion-divided Ivory Coast—while rebels accused loyalists of readying their long-threatened counterattack under cover of the truce talks.

For the first time in the 16-day-old rebellion, loyalist troops could be seen on the move at front lines dividing rebel-controlled north from loyalist south in Ivory Coast.

Loyalist soldiers piled in the backs of pickup trucks rolled out in numbers. French troops and French armoured personnel carriers reinforced positions along the front line, poised to safeguard foreign nationals in this former French colony.

At the front-line town of Tiebissou, residents of northern neighbourhoods said the loyalist soldiers had told them Friday to pack up and move south—warning that there would be “stray bullets”.

“Everyone is terrorised,” said Mathias Nguessan, a cold-drink seller in the town. “Even the chickens have fled.”

“I hope the leaders find a solution.
Otherwise, there will be no Ivory Coast left,” he said, as fleeing women with bundled goods on their heads trudged past.

Until two weeks ago, the refugees were a never-before-seen sight among the people of Ivory Coast, for decades a peaceful and prosperous exception in a volatile region.

It was unclear on Friday whether loyalist forces were moving to secure territory—or reclaim it.

Rebel officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed loyalist forces gearing up for an imminent offensive to retake Ivory Coast’s second-largest city, Bouake, even as truce talks played out.

Ivory Coast’s government up to now has failed to make good on repeated pledges of a major counteroffensive to rout the rebels.

Insurgents, well-armed and well-disciplined, launched their uprising on September 19 with a bloody failed coup attempt. Rebels have held Bouake and the northern opposition stronghold of Korhogo since the first day, and since have claimed much of the north.

At least 300 died in the uprising’s first days. The death toll now is unknown. Residents in Tiebissou spoke on Friday of bodies scattered in a nearby village and lining some roads up north.

Rebels include a core group of 750-800 ex-soldiers, widely believed to have been dismissed from the army for suspected loyalty to the country’s former junta leader General Robert Guei, who was ousted in the 2000 popular revolt that brought President Gbagbo to power.

Gbagbo insists neighbouring countries also are arming dissidents against him. The accusation is believed levelled at Burkina Faso, a Muslim country to the north that has had years of prickly relations with the increasingly xenophobic, largely Christian government of Ivory Coast.

Many Western diplomats privately suspect outside support in the rebellion as well, pointing to rebels’ arsenal, uniforms and gear—even hand-held satellite phones, for the rebel leaders.

Government forces, in contrast, have been equipped with outdated guns, some taped together or missing magazines. Loyalist forces until now have failed to make good on pledges of assault—pulling south, instead of pushing north.

West African leaders have sought to stop the uprising ahead of full-scale war. In Abidjan, foreign ministers of six West African nations worked to hammer out final terms of a cease-fire, after announcing both sides’ approval to a draft proposal Thursday.

Talks at Abidjan’s Hotel Ivoire—itself a marbled, mildewing symbol of Ivory Coast’s decline—dragged hours past the scheduled signing ceremony.

Remy Gbaguidi, an aide to negotiator Mohamed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the West African economic bloc that is pushing for peace, said the negotiators planned to travel to the capital, Yamoussoukro on Saturday.

“We are still trying to reconcile all the points of view,” he told reporters.

Ivory Coast’s government was balking at a term authorising nationwide deployment of West African forces to monitor compliance with the cease-fire, some close to the talks said.

Rebel leaders waited up north, with a signing ceremony - if there were one—expected in Yamoussoukro. West African leaders’ fear is that Ivory Coast—the world’s leading cocoa producer, one of West Africa’s leading ports, and still one of the region’s economic powerhouses—is sliding into the kind of endemic war that bloodied Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.

Despite the peace talks, leaders of radical youth groups are urging their followers to travel to Yamoussoukro next Monday, and on to Bouake to oust the rebels the following day.

Patriotic fervour is running high in Abidjan. Green-white-and-orange national flags stream from car aerials and have been hung on many buildings, and many people are wearing rosettes or headbands in the national colours.

Ivory Coast thrived for decades after independence in 1960, attracting multinational firms and millions of guest workers from other African countries.

An economic dip in the late 1990s, followed by the nation’s first-ever coup in 1999, shattered that.

Rebels’ ultimate goal now is Abidjan. Rebels have said only the formidable French military presence at Yamoussoukro is stopping their drive south.

The French say they are there to protect foreign nationals and provide logistical support to the Ivorian army. Ivory Coast held about 20 000 French and about 2 000 Americans before the uprising.

French and American troops have evacuated around 2 500 foreign nationals from rebel-held areas, ferrying them through Yamoussoukro. - Sapa-AP

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