Three weeks after well-armed rebels in Ivory Coast launched simultaneous uprisings that are now threatening to destabilize the entire region, it is still unclear who the rebels are and what they ultimately want to achieve. In an exclusive interview with VOA, the group's political spokesman shed some light on those questions.
After weeks of refusing to speak on the record, the political spokesman for the rebel Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, Lieutenant Jean Bonfils Agnero, told VOA planning for the rebellion began two years ago.
That was when Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, swept into power, defeating the country's former military ruler, General Robert Guei. General Guei was killed in fighting on the first day of the rebellion three weeks ago.
The rebel official spoke to a VOA reporter near Abidjan, where government troops are still on the hunt for the rebels and rebel sympathizers.
The city was the site of one of three simultaneous rebel attacks on September 19. The rebels took control of large areas in the north and central parts of the country, but the government remains in control in the capital, Yamoussoukro, and Abidjan, the commercial center.
Lieutenant Agnero refused to disclose how many men make up the rebel group. But he says they share a strong dislike for President Gbagbo.
The rebel spokesman says President Gbago heavily manipulated the elections two years ago. At the time the international community also condemned the elections as being flawed.
Lieutenant Agnero accuses the Ivorian leader of being a cunning, crafty politician who lies to his people and is therefore not fit to lead the country. He says the rebels are patriots, who are determined to capture Abidjan, overthrow the government, and organize new elections.
Mr. Agnero says there is no compromise possible when it comes to Mr. Gbagbo. He says, democracy cannot wait and "we cannot fix this problem in the next elections three years from now because by then, the only democracy left in the Ivory Coast will be in the cemeteries."
The 2000 elections were controversial from the start. Ivory Coast's former prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim, was barred from running on the controversial grounds that he was originally from neighboring Burkina Faso and therefore not an Ivorian. Because some leaders of the rebel group come from the same northern area as Mr. Ouattara, there has been speculation that he was behind the uprising.
But Mr. Agnero insists the group has no political connections, not even to General Guei.
Some people believe the rebels are some 700 disgruntled ex-soldiers, originally recruited by the general when he was in power. Mr. Gbagbo fired the men earlier this year as part of a move to make the armed forces smaller.
Some long-time analysts in Abidjan say the rebels are more likely a collection of men disgruntled for various reasons.
Rebel spokesman Jean Bonfils Agnero would not say either way. But he says it is true that the rebels want all men who were once in the Ivorian army under General Guei to be reinstated immediately.
The government of President Gbagbo describes the rebels as a "band of exiled army deserters and disaffected recruits, coup plotters, terrorists, mercenaries, hired guns, and traitors." It has refused to sign a cease-fire until the rebels lay down their arms.
The insurrection has left more than 300 people dead and has heightened ethnic and religious tension in the country of 16 million, a quarter of whom are immigrants who came to live in what was once a haven of stability and prosperity in a troubled region.