Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has conceded that government forces have yet to gain full control over the rebel-held city of Bouake. His statement came after state media this week reported loyalist forces had recaptured the city.
The Ivory Coast leader spoke on state television late Tuesday, saying that loyalist forces were still battling for control of Bouake, Ivory Coast's second largest city.
State media reported that loyalist forces recaptured the city this week, contradicting reports from residents and French military officials who said the center of the city remained under rebel control.
President Gbagbo urged Ivorians to stop attacking members of Ivory Coast's large community of immigrant workers from neighboring countries. He also said he is willing to negotiate with rebels, if they disarm.
Mr. Gbagbo said foreigners are not the problem. He said the enemies at the moment are the rebels. And, he said, the rebels would no longer be considered enemies if they laid down their weapons in the coming days. He said that once disarmed, they would be considered simple adversaries. It would be then, the president said, that the government could negotiate with them to find a solution to the conflict.
The Ivory Coast government has come under increasing international criticism after security forces set fire to illegal shanty towns in Abidjan that are home to thousands of immigrant workers. Government officials say they believe the shanty towns have served as hideouts for rebels.
Attacks by citizens on immigrants have also been fueled by the government's contention that the rebels are receiving support from an unidentified neighboring country.
President Gbagbo defended his recent refusal to sign a cease-fire accord saying any negotiation with the insurgents, as long as they remained armed, would amount to legitimizing the rebel movement.
Mr. Gbagbo angered West African mediators who brokered the cease-fire agreement this week when he refused at the last minute to sign the accord. France which maintains strong economic interests in its former colony also expressed dismay at his action and urged the Ivorian leader to pursue dialogue with the insurgents.
Sporadic fighting continued Tuesday in Bouake, which along with a number of towns in the center and north of the country, has been under rebel control since the insurgents launched their initial attacks on September 19.
Among the latest to be seized by the rebels was the town of Vavoua, on the edge of Ivory Coast's rich cocoa-producing areas.
The fighting has pushed the world price of cocoa to a 16-year highs in recent days. Ivory Coast accounts for about 40 percent of the world's total cocoa production.
Hundreds have been killed since the start of the conflict, which has drawn the involvement of scores of French troops. French forces are deployed in and around the combat zones, where they are providing logistical support to the Ivorian army.