SLUG: 2-297684 CQ Ivory Coast (L)
TITLE=CQ IVORY COAST (L)
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INTRO: Rebels in Ivory Coast have clashed with French troops near a key western town. The French say they have managed to halt the rebel advance for now. V-O-A Correspondent Challiss McDonough reports from Abidjan.
TEXT: The clashes erupted just north of the town of Duekoue, where the French troops have set up a major base. Rebels from the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Far West, or MPIGO, were advancing south from the city of Man, which they overran early Thursday.
On Friday, the rebels took the town of Bangolo, halfway between Man and Duekoue.
The battle with the French Saturday was close enough to Duekoue that residents of the town say they could hear gunshots and artillery.
The French have vowed to stop the rebels' advance before they cross the Sassandra river, which bisects western Ivory Coast. MPIGO leader Felix Doh says he will not stop until his fighters have reached the commercial capital, Abidjan, 350 kilometers to the southeast.
Mr. Doh says his rebels will cross the Sassandra on his march toward Abidjan. But before the battle he indicated they would try to bypass the French outpost at Duekoue so as not to face the heavily armed French troops head-on.
The French have deployed roughly 14-hundred Foreign Legion troops in Ivory Coast, and they plan to expand the force to 25-hundred in the coming weeks. The French troops were initially sent to enforce the tattered cease-fire in the former French colony, but they have become more aggressive in recent weeks as the situation has deteriorated.
The only other widely reported clash between French troops and the insurgents, in late November, killed 10 rebel fighters and wounded one French soldier.
The latest hostilities come as the head of the French army is visiting Ivory Coast to assess the situation on the ground. A French transport ship is expected to dock in Abidjan by the end of next week, carrying another 300 soldiers as well as helicopters and light armored vehicles.
France has become increasingly embroiled in the Ivorian conflict, and has offered to host peace talks in Paris next month. But the conflict, which started in September, has grown more complicated, with two new rebel groups including MPIGO, emerging last month. Another rebel group holds most of the north of Ivory Coast, and peace negotiations have almost completely broken down.
Meanwhile, a U-N Security Council delegation is preparing to visit Ivory Coast to investigate charges of mass killings of civilians and human rights violations.
The Security Council on Friday voted to condemn the rebels' attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government in Ivory Coast. The council expressed grave concern at the deteriorating situation, which threatens the stability of the entire region. (signed)
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