Rebels battle for city despite peace drive

Rebels battled government forces today for a city in Ivory Coast’s cocoa belt, despite a renewed drive by West African peace envoys trying to negotiate an end to the fighting.

Rebels battled government forces today for a city in Ivory Coast’s cocoa belt, despite a renewed drive by West African peace envoys trying to negotiate an end to the fighting.

As mediators flew north by helicopter to meet rebel leaders in the central city of Bouake, the government said its troops were battling rebel attacks to the west, on the city of Daloa. Ivorian army spokesman Col Jules Yao Yao said the insurgents’ offensive started on Saturday north of Daloa and that fighting was still going on tonday.

Residents reported heavy gunfire and said heavily armed rebel fighters were cruising around the city in four-wheel-drive vehicles. But Yao Yao said Daloa had not fallen.

“The most alarming rumors have been circulating of Daloa being taken by the assailants. The army chief of staff wants to reassure the population that there is no question of that. Daloa is under the control of the republican forces,” Yao Yao said on state television’s lunchtime news.

“As I speak to you, the fighting is continuing,” he said.

The extent of casualties was not immediately clear. But Aboubaka Sisse, a 33-year-old Daloa resident reached by telephone, said he saw “a truck loaded with four bodies” Saturday afternoon.

“I couldn’t tell if they were loyalists or rebels,” he said. “We are very afraid.”

The fighting came even as peace mediators from the West African nation of Senegal expressed hope that both sides would work for an end to the rebellion now in its fourth week. Mediators have not divulged details of their peace proposals, but sounded upbeat as they boarded a French military helicopter today for the rebel-held city of Bouake.

The rebels “have given us all the reasons not to be pessimistic,” said Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio.

Another mediator also was meeting with Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo.

An earlier drive for a cease-fire foundered on the government’s insistence that the rebels, who have seized half the country, disarm first.

Hundreds have died in the fighting that started with a bloody coup attempt Sept. 19. The war and ethnic violence it is unleashing has caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, creating a tide of refugees that aid workers fear could spill over Ivory Coast’s borders.

The rebels are centred around 750-800 ex-soldiers who were dismissed from the army for suspected disloyalty. They have called for a new government, among other demands, and have gathered support from Ivorians in the north. Northerners are predominantly Muslim and complain that Ivory Coast’s southern-based government treats them poorly.

In Daloa, residents reported heavy gunfire. One said he saw heavily armed rebels riding around in four-by-fours.

“The rebels are there, there was lots of shooting,” said another man, driving a pickup truck carrying about 10 people who fled the fighting. He was speaking in Bouafle, a town 80 kilometres (50 miles) east of Daloa. He said they were headed further east, to the capital, Yamoussoukro.

A senior paramilitary police official in constant radio contact with Ivorian authorities in Daloa cautioned that the situation there was very confused. But he said rebel fighters were pushing into the city, apparently driving government forces out.

Even while dealing with mediators, rebel fighters had warned of an attack. At a rally on Saturday in their northern stronghold of Korhogo, rebels renewed vows to march on Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial capital in the south.

“We have to advance methodically, without violence, theft or rape. But we will achieve our goal,” a rebel leader who goes by the name of Colonel Bamba told thousands of people who turned out in support.

Uniformed rebels with red berets fueled up four-by-fours at a commandeered gas station.

“We are preparing for a big offensive on several cities,” said a rebel who gave his name as Sekou.

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