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Ivory Coast Rebels Claim Control of Village Near Liberian Border - 2003-01-01

There have been several new developments in the war in Ivory Coast on the New Year day. Rebels in the west say they have taken control of a town, several-hundred kilometers from the site of recent fighting. And French peacekeepers have confirmed that the government has broken a cease-fire by attacking a rebel-held village to the north.

French military officials say that a government helicopter gunship attacked a rebel-held fishing village in central Ivory Coast Wednesday.

A French army spokesman calls it a very serious incident. He says 11 civilians were killed in the assault, which took place roughly 60 kilometers west of the rebel stronghold of Bouake.

An Ivorian government spokesman says the attack was aimed at military targets, not civilian ones, and it came after loyalist troops were attacked by rebels nearby.

The village is on the shores of a large lake and at least 40 kilometers behind the cease-fire line agreed to in October.

France has sent roughly 2,500 troops to Ivory Coast to enforce the shaky cease-fire in the former French colony.

Meanwhile, a different rebel faction claims to have taken control of the western village of Neka, near the Liberian border.

Rebel leader Felix Doh says his forces took the town without a fight Wednesday. The claim has not been independently confirmed, and a government spokesman has denied that the rebels control the town.

Reports from the area say the town has been looted by a group that apparently crossed over the border from Liberia.

The village lies nearly 200 kilometers south of the rebels' known territory. If the rebels control Neka, it gives them a foothold in the south, much closer to the strategic port city of San Pedro.

There have been recent reports the government fears a rebel attack on San Pedro, which is Ivory Coast's second-largest port and handles much of the country's cocoa exports.

In a New Year's Eve address to the country, President Laurent Gbagbo said he would refuse to negotiate with the insurgents until they lay down their weapons. He said the rebels have reached a political and military stalemate, and the government has the backing of the international community.

Mr. Gbagbo vowed to keep fighting until "Ivory Coast recovers its territorial integrity."