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SLUG: 2-297006 Ivory Coast Fighting (L)









INTRO: Heavy gunfire rang in the western Ivory Coast city of Man, as government troops battled to win back control of the city from rebels. V-O-A's Luis Ramirez reports from Abidjan.

TEXT: Residents say it is not clear who is in control of the city, which had fallen to new rebel factions last week.

Military officials with the government of President Laurent Gbagbo said loyalist troops had taken positions in the city and were in the process of mopping up. The officials' statements were not independently verified.

Man, in western Ivory Coast, was taken last week by rebels of new factions that have emerged in addition to the rebel group that has been holding the north and center of Ivory Coast since September.

The new factions say their aim is to avenge the September assassination of former military ruler General Robert Guei, a member of Ivory Coast's western Yacouba ethnic group.

Ivory Coast Yacoubas have close cultural ties to people of the Gio tribe in neighboring Liberia, and the latest fighting has involved combatants from that country.

Refugees among the hundreds fleeing Man and the city of Danane, which was also captured by rebels last week, said they had seen Liberians among those fighting and looting during the rebel attacks.

/// OPT /// Danane, which lies near the Liberian border, has long been home to thousands of Liberian refugees who have gone there to escape that country's successive rebel conflicts. /// END OPT ///

Meanwhile, peace negotiations remained at a standstill between representatives of President Laurent Gbagbo and rebels with the group that has been holding the center and north of the country.

Speaking on the sidelines of the talks in Togo, rebels with the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast sought to dispel what they said were rumors that their group had been split. The rebels said their faction, which is made up largely of people from Ivory Coast's north, remained united and ready to fight government forces if the talks collapse.

/// REST OPT /// The emergence of new rebel factions and the escalation of fighting is raising concerns about the possibility of an all-out civil war in Ivory Coast, an economic anchor in the region and the world's main source of cocoa. (SIGNED)


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