SLUG: 2-296989 Ivory Coast / Western Battle (L-O)
TITLE=IVORY COAST / WESTERN BATTLE (L-O)
INTRO: Military forces in Ivory Coast have launched an effort to retake the rebel-held western town of Man. French troops have left the city's airport after evacuating French citizens to the capital, Abidjan. Kate Davenport reports from the western Ivory Coast city of Daloa.
TEXT: The battle began (Sunday) for Ivory Coast's main coffee producing town at about 3 pm local time. According to French military sources, witnesses south of Man saw about a dozen pickups and a handful of four wheel drive vehicles carrying what appeared to be foreign mercenaries driving away from Man at about 4:30 pm.
They didn't look like Ivorians and there were several whites, said a witness in Duekoue, 70 kilometers south of Man.
He said they looked pretty scruffy, as if they had been in a fight and one of them had a bandaged arm, he added.
At the same time, residents of Duekoue saw four truck loads of Ivorian soldiers crossing the other vehicles, driving north toward Man.
The French, who successfully evacuated 160 foreign nationals early Sunday after a shootout for the airport which left 10 rebels dead, confirmed that loyalist forces had retaken the airport at Man.
However, French military spokesman Major Frederic Thomazo, said they are having no formal handover and he had no further information on the situation in Man.
Our soldiers simply withdrew from the airport to their respective positions after completing their main mission to evacuate foreign nationals, he said.
He said their 2nd main target was to continue overseeing an October ceasefire agreement between troops loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo and rebels of the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, controlling the north of the country.
Since the western town appears to have been taken by new rebel groups, the French had withdrawn from the region to leave the fighting to government forces, he said.
Ivorian government army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Aka was unable to confirm reports that loyalist forces had entered Man at about 9 pm local time.
Those are military secrets, he said. We will have to wait until the morning for the good news. (signed)
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