Ivory Coast: October 22, 2002

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: For a brief four days, it looked as if the Peace Accord in the Ivory Coast would hold: There had been no reports of fighting since the peace deal, signed by the rebels on the 17th and approved by President Gbagbo, took effect on the 18th. While rebels in Bouake rested at their posts, the loyalists continued to build up strength behind their own lines and in a suburb of Abidjan, about 3,000 pro-government youths marched to call on the army to take the offensive.

French officers said that between 19 and 21 October, half of their 1,000 troops would move west from their current positions to deploy along the front between the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast rebels and President Gbagbo's forces. Vowing to retaliate "very strongly" if attacked, the French will deploy patrols, set up observation posts, checkpoints and previously agreed upon contact points between government and rebel forces. 

On the 20th, French reconnaissance and contact teams reached Bondoukou (near the Ghana border) and Mbahiakro (50 miles south of Bouake). On the 21st, they extended their buffer zone through Bonoufla, a small town in the western cocoa-growing region. The French have also taken up posts at Tiebissou and Brobo (about 15 miles east of Bouake), as well as the Man and Touba regions. The buffer zone now separates Daloa, the country's third largest city, from the town of Vavoua, under rebel control.

The worst French nightmare is that this war could very easily degenerate into an ugly fight between ethnic and religious groups, with wholesale atrocities. The loyalists accused the rebels of violating the ceasefire on the 20th, by looting homes at an air base at Bouake. The rebels have already accused the government of planting Angolan-supplied antipersonnel landmines in Daloa, the northeastern town of Bondoukou, and in M'Bahiakro in the center of the country.

A textbook example of how things unravel occurred on the 17th, when Muslim-owned shops in Daloa were sacked. Paramilitary gendarmes broke into a shop owned by wealthy Muslim merchant Khalilou Toure and looted it, after raiding his home and finding a weapon (which would be a reasonable thing to have, in a time of national uncertainty). The gendarmes then went to Daloa's main market, where most of the traders are Muslim and fired shots into the air to scare away the crowd. Gangs of youth (mainly ethnic Betes, who predominate in Daloa) jumped on the bandwagon and pillaged other Toure-owned shops, as well as various Muslim-owned stalls in the market. One Lebanese merchant in Daloa described the atmosphere as unhealthy and expected to see old scores settled.

The day before, paramilitary gendarmes and police exchanged gunfire for several minutes at a working class district in the main city of Abidjan. The shooting began when gendarmes tried to ring a building of the anti-riot police squad in the Abidjan quarter of Yopougon. It was not clear why the gendarmes tried to encircle the police building. 

The only shooting in Daloa after the ceasefire was supposedly from loyalist soldiers firing in the air at around six in the evening, simply to announce the curfew. However, a more sinister explanation soon surfaced: on the night of the 20th, "uniformed personnel" descended on the Daloa neighborhood of Orly 2 and gathered a crowd of Muslim residents. They stripped the people and then demanded 5,000 CFA (seven US dollars) from each person. Those who paid were allowed to leave, those who didn't were shot. Daloa residents claim that 42 people were killed that night. The figure was unofficially raised to 56 dead on the 21st, with 19 bodies still unclaimed in the streets. Ivorian army spokesman Colonel Jules Yao Yao had heard of atrocities being committed in government-held areas by "people in uniform." He called on Ivorians to report such acts and warned that those guilty "could be shot on sight." 

The Ivorian army seemed to have retaken the initiative with the recapture of Daloa, thanks to an infusion of new weapons and possibly some foreign advisors (either mercenaries or state-sponsored). During the battle of Daloa, some locals reported the presence of loyalist fighters "of mixed race" in new combat fatigues, tough-looking and totally silent, giving rise to speculation on the intervention of Angolan soldiers. Two rebels were killed and about 12 wounded on the 17th, after a government ambush about 13 miles from Daloa. A group of about 150 rebel reinforcements had left the town of Vavoua (31 miles from Daloa) when they came under fire from government troops using a tank and snipers. The rebels later claimed the attackers were Angolan soldiers. 

The loyalist army's apathy (obvious since the beginning of the conflict) was dissipated by the dismissal of Minister of Defense Moise Lida Kouassi's on 12 October. Army leaders had demanded that he be relieved before they were ordered into action. To further prepare his counteroffensive, Gbagbo sent one special advisor to Paris and another to Israel, seeking financing, weapons and to strengthen his intelligence services. The Ivorian government allegedly signed a contract with Eurocopter's Romanian subsidiary for the purchase of three Pumas, an unspecified number of Alouettes and reconnaissance planes, but the transaction apparently collapsed. According to other sources, up to six Angolan "tanks" that arrived in Ivory Coast were delivered with service personnel. Yet the Ivorian government claims that their two tanks (BMP2s) were ordered (and paid for in cash) from the recognized Israeli supplier to the Angolan Army and only "transited" through Luanda.

The country remains a tinderbox. Many Western diplomats suspect that the rebels have foreign support, pointing out that their arsenal, uniforms and equipment (like satellite phones) cannot have come from government stores and arsenals (as the rebels claim). Despite the truce agreement, on the 18th the State Department urged Americans to depart the Ivory Coast and there were unconfirmed rumors that the UN had ordered families of its staff to leave. - Adam Geibel



 

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