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Ivorian Rebels Recapture Key Town - 2002-12-19

Rebels have recaptured a key town in western Ivory Coast after several days of heavy fighting. The town of Man has fallen just as West African leaders have agreed to deploy their own peacekeeping troops to the troubled country.

Rebels from the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Far West, or MPIGO overran the strategic town of Man less than two days after launching a three-pronged attack on government forces there.

Speaking to VOA by satellite phone, MPIGO leader Felix Doh says his fighters are in full control of Man. Residents of the city say rebel soldiers are patrolling the streets, and Ivorian government troops have fled.

A French military spokesman has confirmed to VOA that Man is now in rebel hands.

Man is the largest city in western Ivory Coast and has been the center of the heaviest fighting over recent weeks. It has changed hands several times.

Phone lines into Man appear to have been cut. Repeated attempts to reach residents of the city by telephone have failed.

Meanwhile, at a meeting in Dakar, Senegal, West African leaders from the regional group ECOWAS have decided to deploy about 1,500 troops to Ivory Coast. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade says the ECOWAS soldiers will arrive by the end of the year.

An ECOWAS spokesman says a Senegalese commander will lead the force. An Ivorian government official tells VOA it is also not clear what their mandate will be, but he believes they will be monitoring the cease-fire and not fighting in support of government troops.

The ECOWAS forces were originally supposed to replace the French troops already deployed in Ivory Coast. But it now appears they will work side by side.

France on Wednesday announced it is sending another 300 paratroopers to enforce the tattered cease fire in its former colony. A French transport ship is scheduled to dock in Ivory Coast by the end of next week, carrying the 300 French soldiers, as well as helicopters and light armored vehicles.

Roughly 1,500 French soldiers are already deployed in Ivory Coast, mainly in the north and west. French officials have said they intend to increase the total troop strength to 2,500. They have authorized their soldiers to shoot anyone who violates the cease-fire.

The decision to deploy West African peacekeepers came at what was supposed to be a special head of state summit of ECOWAS. But only four heads of state actually showed up for the meeting, including the host, Mr. Wade of Senegal, and Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo.

Mr. Gbagbo told the meeting he will present his own comprehensive peace plan by the end of next week.