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New Fighting Erupts in Ivory Coast - 2003-01-09

Rebels in Ivory Coast say government helicopters attacked a western town on Thursday. The reported attack came despite plans for a new round of peace talks that are scheduled to begin in Paris next week.

Rebels with the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West, one of three insurgent groups involved in the country's almost four-month-old insurrection, say army helicopters fired on the town of Grabo, Thursday.

The insurgents said at least 15 people were killed.

An army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jules Yao Yao, said loyalist forces had carried out operations in the area of Grabo Thursday, but did not confirm the casualties.

Grabo, near Ivory Coast's border with Liberia, fell to rebels last week. Witnesses said the town appeared to be deserted on Thursday afternoon.

The latest attack came even after all sides, including the government, agreed to come together for new peace negotiations next week. The talks, to be held in Paris starting on Wednesday, will be brokered by France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast.

French President Jacques Chirac has described the negotiations as a last chance for peace in the conflict, which has killed hundreds, and left the once stable West African country divided in three.

The Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, whose followers launched a failed coup attempt in September, control most of the north of the country, while two smaller groups control the west. Only the south remains under the control of the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.

More than 2,000 French troops are on the ground to protect the estimated 20,000 French nationals who live in Ivory Coast, and prevent a rebel advance on the main city, Abidjan.