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SLUG: 2-297360 Ivory Coast / Fighting (L-Update)









INTRO: France is stepping up its involvement in efforts to stop the escalating rebel conflict in Ivory Coast. French foreign ministry officials on Wednesday announced France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, will immediately boost its troop presence in the West African country. V-O-A's Luis Ramirez reports from Abidjan.

TEXT: France's announcement came as fighting continued to escalate and ongoing peace negotiations, under way in Togo between the government and rebels, appeared to be on the verge of collapse.

France already has more than one-thousand troops serving as a buffer force between the rebel held north of Ivory Coast and the government-controlled south.

In addition to sending more troops, French foreign ministry officials said France is willing to host a new round of discussions to end Ivory Coast's 12-week-old conflict.

Rebels with the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast on Wednesday announced they were launching a recruitment effort as they prepared for what they said will be a major offensive if ongoing peace negotiations with the government fail. The insurgents said they are recruiting all men between the ages of 21 and 35 in the territories they control.

The rebels' move Wednesday was in response to the government's mobilization of thousands of young men who turned out in the commercial capital, Abidjan, Tuesday to enlist in the army.

A spokesman for the rebel group at its headquarters in the central rebel-held city of Bouake said the group has declared Abidjan a war zone and is calling on its supporters in the city to prepare for battle. The spokesman said the government's mobilization effort was, to the rebels, a sign that the government was ready to abandon peace efforts and engage in war.

/// BEGIN OPT /// Togolese leader Ngassingbe Eyadema, the chief mediator of the peace talks, is due to preside over a meeting between President Laurent Gbagbo and officials of various political parties in Abidjan on Thursday. /// END OPT ///

Ivory Coast's rebel conflict, which began with a failed coup attempt on September 19th, escalated last month when new factions of rebels emerged and took over several towns in the west of the country, near the Liberian border. Hundreds have been killed, and rebels have refused to budge on their main demand, the resignation of President Laurent Gbagbo.

Fighting has continued almost daily. Loyalist forces backed by foreign mercenaries on Wednesday announced they had pushed rebels of the new factions out of the western town of Blolekin this week.

/// OPT /// Insurgents with the main northern-based Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast have been holding the center and north of the country since September. /// END OPT ///

French officials said their decision Wednesday to deploy more troops was meant to protect the more than 20-thousand French nationals who live in Ivory Coast, where France maintains significant interests in cocoa, timber, and other industries. (Signed)


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