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Ivory Coast Fighting Dies Down as Negotiations Heat Up - 2003-02-21

Fighting has died down in the Ivory Coast, but negotiations to try to form a national unity government are heating up.

The Ivorian army says it has put down an uprising by suspected anti-government rebels in the north of the country.

The fighting occurred for two days outside the town of Zuenoula, in a sugar-producing region about 325 kilometers northwest of Abidjan.

The local military commander [who was not identified] told government television the fighting was fierce.

He said the assailants had been trying to capture Zuenoula, but his troops fought them off. The army says 12 of its men were wounded and one is missing and presumed killed.

The French army, which is monitoring a cease-fire, says it cannot confirm the Ivorian military claim that the attackers were rebels.

The French say the gunmen might have been marauding looters. The main Ivorian rebel faction, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, denies it was involved.

Meanwhile, the leader of the rebel movement, Guillaume Soro, arrived in Paris Friday for talks with Prime Minister Seydou Diarra.

The prime minister is trying to put together a national unity government under terms of a French-brokered peace accord signed in January.

The rebels want the defense and interior ministries under the agreement, but the army and major political parties are rejecting that proposal.

In another development, there has been more international criticism of Ivory Coast's human rights record under President Laurent Gbagbo.

French President Jacques Chirac told the just-concluded Franco-African summit that death squads are operating in Ivory Coast, and the perpetrators could face international justice.

The United Nations has said the death squads have government backing, and are linked to the Ivorian presidential guard.

Amnesty International says some 40,000 Liberians living in exile in Ivory Coast are in particular danger of being killed by security forces or civilians armed by the government.

Liberians are the biggest refugee community in Ivory Coast, and Amnesty International says they are being indiscriminately associated with the armed rebellion.