COTE D IVOIRE: Rebels warn of imminent government attack
ABIDJAN, 11 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - Rebel forces in northern Cote d'Ivoire have accused government troops of preparing an imminent assault following last week's attack by loyalist militias on rebel positions.
"We have clear signs that the government troops on the frontline have been massively reinforced with men and arms," one rebel leader, Amadou Kone, told IRIN by telephone from the rebel stronghold of Bouake on Friday.
In a statement issued late on Thursday, the New Forces rebels said that last week's attack by militiamen loyal to Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo on a rebel checkpoint in the western town of Logouale was "a prelude to an imminent reprisal of hostilities right across the frontline."
But Gbagbo's right-hand men shrugged off the accusations on Friday.
"We are not in a logic of war. For us, the war is over," Kadet Bertin, Gbagbo's security and defence advisor, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
"The African Union has given South African President (Thabo) Mbeki a mandate to mediate in the Ivorian crisis. Until president Mbeki has finished his work, I don't see what would be the interest for Gbagbo to ask his forces to attack."
Mbeki was sent in as mediator after the Ivorian army launched an abortive assault on rebel positions last November. But his efforts have brought little in the way of concrete results, with rebel ministers still boycotting cabinet meetings and the president sticking to his guns about holding a referendum to change what many analysts see as a crunch piece of legislation.
The key issues of disarmament and the country being reunified are far from being resolved and the timeframe for holding presidential elections on schedule in October is looking increasingly tight.
Rebels control the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire after staging a failed coup in September 2002 that split the country in two. Some 6,000 United Nations peacekeeping forces and 4,000 French troops patrol a buffer zone that cuts a swathe across the West African country in an attempt to keep the warring sides apart.
Last week's attack on Logouale, a rebel outpost on the frontline, 520 km northwest of Abidjan, has given rise to a torrent of speculation about a resumption of fighting, that culminated in the rebel accusations.
Several pro-Gbagbo newspapers have published reports that the New Forces rebel movement was preparing a counter-attack in the west. Rebel leader Kone denied these allegations.
Thousands flee homes
Amidst this backdrop of mounting tension, accusation and counter-accusation, humanitarian workers are sounding the alarm.
Officials at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that as many as 15,000 people had fled their homes in the buffer zone since the Logouale attack.
In a statement released on Thursday, OCHA also said there had been a series of clashes in the villages of Fengolo, Toa, Zeo and Diahouin close to the town of Duekoue in the so-called "Wild West", a hot bed of inter-ethnic tension and the heartland of the cocoa producing region.
Back in Abidjan, Gbagbo has prolonged what was originally a three-month ban on public rallies in the de facto capital until June, assuaging fears among residents that loyalist youth militia leader Charles Ble Goude would organise marches on Sunday and throughout next week to demand the departure of French peacekeeping troops.
Nonetheless, diplomats remain on alert during what some say privately is the calm before the storm.
The French Defence and Foreign Ministries issued a statement in Paris earlier this week saying that the former colonial power was "concerned by several negative signals noted over the past few days, and particularly by the risks of instability in the west."
"France is again calling on all Ivorian parties to strictly conform with the ceasefire commitments that they have taken," the joint statement added.
Some Cote d'Ivoire watchers see two potential flashpoint dates ahead. One is 25-26 March, the first anniversary of the weekend when human rights investigators say at least 120 people were killed by the government security forces and militias after opposition parties tried to stage a banned demonstration against the president.
The other is 3 April when the current UN peacekeeping mandate is due to expire.
At a press conference last month in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, the head of the UN peacekeeping forces in Cote d'Ivoire Abdoulaye Fall stressed that his mandate would have to be increased and his powers enhanced if his forces are to be able to carry out a disarmament campaign in the country.
France meanwhile has said its forces will only stay if Gbagbo, the AU and the UN ask them to. It has also submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council, calling for 1,226 additional UN peacekeepers to be sent to the world's top cocoa producer.
The Security Council was meeting behind closed doors in New York on Friday to discuss the situation in Cote d'Ivoire.