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Conditions Growing More Desperate in Ivory Coast - 2002-12-05

People fleeing areas of fighting in Ivory Coast say conditions are growing more desperate for those caught behind rebel lines.

Residents leaving the western city of Man say the streets are littered with decomposing bodies. The city has been the scene of heavy battles between government forces and rebels who seized much of western Ivory Coast last week.

The government, which has hired foreign mercenaries to train its troops, says it regained control of the city early this week. Rebels dispute the claim.

Those who have managed to leave Man say many residents of the city are staying indoors because they fear more fighting. According to one witness, people are staying home to avoid the stench of the decomposing corpses.

The conflict began in September and has left Ivory Coast divided in three parts. Rebels with a group known as the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, who launched the initial attacks as part of a failed coup attempt in September, control the center and north of the country. The attacks in the west last week were by two new factions. The south remains under the control of the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.

Negotiations between the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast and the government have been dragging for more than a month in Togo, with little progress reported.

Public pressure has been growing on President Gbagbo to end the conflict as business in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer and an economic powerhouse in the region, remains stifled.

After more than two months, the country remains under a nighttime curfew. Abidjan was once known for its luxury restaurants and vibrant nightlife, but in the last month its hotel occupancy rate has dropped to less than five percent.

The curfew, enforced by soldiers and heavily armed police, has hurt businesses of all sizes.

Emilie Koffi operates a telephone booth outside a normally busy nightclub in Abidjan's working-class Youpougon district. She said she must close early due to the curfew. And, she says, on top of that, telephone lines have been regularly interrupted since the conflict began.

"The calls do not go through, so people do not bother trying to call anymore," she said. "Before, this telephone booth used to make me more than $50 a day. Now, I earn five at the most. Frankly, I am tired of this. This cannot continue. I am praying it ends soon. If this continues, what are we going to do, start eating one another?"

Members of the youth wing of President Gbagbo's political party held a rally this week. Rally leaders said they were prepared to begin defying the curfew if it is not lifted soon.