UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
COTE D IVOIRE: Army planes bomb north for second day, rebel leader says negotiations over
ABIDJAN, 5 Nov 2004 (IRIN) - Rebel leader Guillaume Soro said on Friday he was no longer prepared to negotiate with the government after Ivorian army warplanes pounded towns across the rebel-held north for the second day running, killing at least 18 people.
"It is about assassinating us. The political option is not being put first," Soro told IRIN by telephone from the north of Cote d'Ivoire. "I am no longer ready to negotiate."
The West African country has been split into a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south since September 2002, with around 10,000 peacekeepers from the UN and France standing guard in a buffer zone between the two sides.
This week's attacks, which forced the UN to suspend its humanitarian operations, marked the first hostilities since a total ceasefire was signed in May last year.
As fears rose that Cote d'Ivoire might tip back into full-scale civil war, regional leaders moved to find a way to contain the crisis. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is currently chairman of the African Union, will be holding a meeting on Saturday, his spokeswoman told reporters.
"There's going to be a high-level meeting at his farm tomorrow with representatives from West Africa and the African Union," spokeswoman Remi Oyo said.
Provisional death toll stands at 18
Ivorian warplanes and helicopters on Friday dropped bombs on seven rebel-held towns including Baoulifla, Bonguera, Seguela and Vavoua, UN military officials said. French peacekeeping sources said bridges and rebel checkpoints had been among the hits.
"We have a provisional death toll today of at least 18 people, of whom 16 were civilians," said Philippe Moreux, a press officer for the UN Mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI).
A rebel commander at Vavoua, a town just north of the buffer zone, put the death toll much higher, saying at least 54 people had been killed in attacks in his area.
Friday's assault followed a wave of bombings throughout Thursday on the central stronghold of Bouake - targeting a television station and the hotel where the rebel have their headquarters - and an attack around dusk on Korhogo, another rebel town further north.
Medecins Sans Frontieres said its team in Bouake had been informed of many deaths, but had not been able to confirm the numbers themselves. However, they said 39 people had been sent for urgent treatment at the main hospital, including many civilians.
An IRIN correspondent in Bouake, which lies 400 km north of Abidjan, said there had been no water or electricity in the town since Wednesday night and that residents were keeping off the streets and hiding, fearful of further raids.
International community needs to do more
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has condemned the violation of the ceasefire, but the International Crisis Group (ICG), a leading political think tank, on Friday urged the international community to do more to protect civilians.
"The situation is extremely worrying. France and the United Nations have to live up to their mandates of protecting civilian lives," Mike McGovern, the ICG's Africa director, told IRIN by phone from New York.
"In Rwanda both the French and the UN were there and they allowed genocide to take place," he said. "If the fighting is allowed to continue without strong intervention, we could not only see more civilian casualties as a consequence of fighting in the north, but ethnic cleansing."
Ivorian army troops were massing men, vehicles and ammunition in the capital, Yamoussoukro, with some moving north into the buffer zone and converging on the town of Tiebissou, halfway to the rebel stronghold, Bouake.
"A batallion of Moroccan peacekeepers have prevented two columns of Ivorian military vehicles getting through at Tiebissou," French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told Radio France Internationale on Friday.
"The UN forces will continue to intercept, with perhaps a more robust mandate tomorrow," she added.
ONUCI's peacekeepers operate under a so-called Chapter 6 mandate, which means that they can only use force when UN staff or property is targeted. Should their mandate be made "more robust", i.e. changed to Chapter 7, that would give them the possibility of using force to enforce peace.
Attacks in Abidjan
Meanwhile in Abidjan, the commercial capital of what used to be West Africa's economic success story, smoke streamed into the sky above the headquarters of the Rassemblement des Republicains (RDR) opposition party on Friday. Militants who support President Laurent Gbagbo had set fire to the building, gutting the inside.
The RDR is led by former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, who was banned from standing against Gbagbo in the 2000 presidential election on the grounds that his father was not born in Cote d'Ivoire. The northern rebels want the constitution changed to allow Ouattara to participate in the next ballot, scheduled for October 2005.
This is one of a series of reforms the government was supposed to push through in line with the French-brokered peace deal in 2003, and a West African summit in July this year. Its failure to do this was cited by the rebels as their reason for not sticking to an October disarmament deadline.
The pro-Gbagbo militants also attacked the building of the main opposition party, the PDCI (Parti democratique de Cote d'Ivoire), on Thursday along with three newspapers they view as being hostile to the president.
In another sign of a crackdown on the opposition, the head of the national television, who had been chosen by the rebels in the power-sharing government, was replaced.
The militants, known as the Young Patriots, rallied outside army headquarters yesterday, demanding an all-out assault on the north, and some analysts see this week's bombings as an attempt by Gbagbo to appease his more radical supporters.
"I think he's trying to put pressure on the New Forces of course, but he may also being trying to satisfy the hard-line elements in his own ranks as well," said Stephen Ellis, an Africa specialist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, who returned from Abidjan on Thursday. "It's clear there's a serious risk of a coup."
Ellis said he doubted whether Gbagbo would go so far as to launch a full-scale attack on the north, given that French and UN peacekeepers were standing between the rebels and the Ivorian army.
But he warned that if hardliner dreams of conquering the north were thwarted, then that might lead to reprisals on the ground in Abidjan.
"One of the big dangers now is that the southern opinion gets whipped up, as it has been, and they get frustrated at not being able to attack the north and then there's the big fear of ethnic massacres on a larger scale than we've seen before, especially in Abidjan where there's a big population of foreigners."
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