Ivory Coast: fears of a new civil war

AFP, Monday 20 Dec 2010

Fear has gripped the dusty little towns scattered on either side of the ceasefire line that has split Ivory Coast into northern and southern armed camps since 2002, and all the talk is war

Ivory Coast
A soldier sitting on a truck holds up a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) during a rally by supporters of Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo in Yopougon, Abidjan 18 December 2010. (Reuters)


While the world has followed the political manoeuvrings and outbreaks of armed street violence in the packed suburbs of Abidjan, the southern port city sprawling around Atlantic lagoons, tension has also been mounting inland.

Scattered outbreaks of fighting have been reported as the southern security forces of stubborn strongman Laurent Gbagbo and the northern rebels backing his rival Alassane Ouattara test each other's and their own strength.

"Our positions have been reinforced. We're ready for anything. If it takes war to bring peace, we won't hesitate," said a rebel commander in the central town of Djebonoua, the most southerly position of the so-called "New Forces" (FN).

Around him, FN fighters with Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stood ready to restart what they began in 2002, when a failed coup against Gbagbo tore Ivory Coast in half and plunged its politics into chaos.

Since 2004, the ceasefire line that crosses Djebonoua has been patrolled by UN peacekeepers and the political process has limped on, with New Forces' commander Guillaume Soro even serving briefly as Gbagbo's prime minister.

But the disputed result of last month's presidential election reopened old wounds, with Soro's FN backing fellow northerner Alassane Ouattara's claim and the southern Defence and Security Forces (FDS) backing Gbagbo.

So while the FN fighters in Djebonoua say they are ready for trouble, further west in another frontline town, Duekoue, it is FDS troops who are manning new checkpoints and patrolling the bush around town.

A strategic crossroads on a rare stretch of surfaced road to Liberia, the town is in a forest where shifting alliances and a battle for control of the cocoa trade triggered some of the fiercest fighting in the last conflict.

Still traumatised by their bitter memories, residents have been terrorised anew by signs of gathering conflict. On Thursday night, the bush resounded to the sounds of rebel automatic fire, wood merchant Bruno Taho said.

"The army returned fire with heavy weapons, we heard artillery," he said.

On Sunday, Juliette Bro dared breathe again. "Thank the Lord," smiled the thirty-something mother, a well-rounded woman with braided hair. "We didn't hear a single shot last night, for the first time in days."

Juliette had been bedding down in her sister's house for safety, but most of her family and dozens of other locals have taken refuge in a large Catholic mission, a complex of low buildings surrounded by acacia trees.

As the curfew was lifted just after dawn they emerged in small groups to return to their fields and businesses, to see if anything has been taken or if any fresh bullet holes have scarred their homes' cinder-block walls.

So is war coming? Commanders from both sides insist they are ready, but say they won't start anything and accuse the other of provocation.

But back in Djebonoua an AFP reporter saw two truckloads of FN fighters, perhaps 100 men in all, come down from their headquarters in Bouake, jump down and slip away into the brush along the tense front line.

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