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Fighting Continues in Ivory Coast's Bouake - 2002-10-08

Sporadic fighting continued in Ivory Coast's second city, Bouake, throughout the day Tuesday as the government pressed its offensive against rebels who have been holding the city for nearly three weeks.

Residents of Bouake say they heard shooting and mortar fire on Tuesday as conflicting reports emerged on who was in control of the city.

Rebels said they would launch an offensive against government forces after loyalists penetrated the city from several directions on Monday and made it as far as the city center.

Witnesses say government forces retreated from the city center on Monday, but state-owned media continued to report Tuesday that loyalist forces had captured Bouake and were in the process of mopping up.

French military officials said the city center remained under the control of rebels. The officials said a column of Ivorian army vehicles had taken positions east of the city and were attempting to re-enter.

The government's offensive has come after Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo refused to sign a cease-fire accord brokered by West African mediators.

Government officials said President Gbagbo remained open, in principle, to a cease-fire but said any agreement would have to commit the rebels to disarm.

Hundreds of youths gathered in the political capital, Yamoussoukro, Tuesday, and vowed to march to Bouake to help oust the rebels. The demonstrators chanted angry slogans against the neighboring nation of Burkina Faso, which state media have accused of supporting the rebels. Burkina Faso's government has denied the accusation.

The conflict in Ivory Coast, which began with a series of coordinated attacks on September 19, has pushed cocoa prices to a 16-year high on world markets. Ivory Coast produces about 40 percent of the world's cocoa.

On Monday, the rebels captured the western town of Vavoua, on the edge of one of the country's main cocoa-producing regions.

Ivory Coast remains under a nationwide nighttime curfew. But banks, markets, and most institutions in Abidjan continue to function normally.