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French Soldiers Discover Mass Grave in Ivory Coast - 2002-12-06

French soldiers in Ivory Coast have discovered a mass grave believed to contain the bodies of victims killed in ongoing fighting between loyalists and rebels in the west of the country.

French military officials who are part of a buffer force monitoring a cease-fire in Ivory Coast say they do not know whether the bodies are those of combatants or civilians.

Fighting has been raging in the west of the country since last week, following the emergence of two new rebel factions that captured several towns and villages in the west of Ivory Coast.

French Commander Frederic Thomazo told VOA a group of French soldiers found the mass grave in an area of western Ivory Coast known as Monoko-Zoy. He said villagers led the French troops to a large mound of dirt in the bush.

The commander said the mound was about 30 meters long and two meters high, and he said body parts were sticking out of the pile. He said the villagers also pointed to a nearby water well, where they indicated that more corpses may have been dumped.

It is not clear how many bodies were in the mass grave, or who put them there.

French officials said it would be up to the Ivorian government to investigate the deaths, since a probe of the matter would not be part of the French peacekeepers' mandate.

The grave is about 70 kilometers west of Daloa, near the town of Pelezi. The town has been the scene of heavy fighting between loyalist forces backed by foreign mercenaries against rebels in recent days.

Refugees fleeing the combat areas say the government forces used helicopter gunships to attack rebel targets. Witnesses said a large number of civilians were killed in the attacks.

The latest fighting in the west of Ivory Coast involves members of new rebel factions that are separate from those who launched the insurrection in September.

Rebels with the original faction, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, have been in peace negotiations with the government for more than a month.

The negotiations, which continued in Togo on Friday, have made little progress thus far, fueling fears that the conflict in Ivory Coast, once an oasis of stability in West Africa, might continue to escalate.