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Fighting Erupts in Northern Ivory Coast - 2004-06-21

Fighting involving dissident rebel groups has erupted in northern Ivory Coast. Meanwhile, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo is promising to move forward the stalled peace process. There has been heavy artillery fire in parts of the northern city of Korhogo since Sunday, while in the rebel stronghold of Bouake, firefights erupted on the outskirts of the city and at the airport, despite the presence of French and U.N. peacekeepers.

Rebels said several assassination attempts against their leaders had been foiled.

At a hastily organized news conference in Bouake, Lieutenant Pierre Zoua accused supporters of exiled former 1999 coup leader Ibrahim Coulibaly, of trying to foment instability in the north with the support of the Ivorian and Guinean governments.

Lieutenant Zoua accused Mr. Coulibaly as well as Mr. Gbagbo and his Guinean counterpart, Lansana Conte, of being the instigators of the rift in the rebel ranks.

The northern-based rebels, known as the New Forces, have in recent weeks accused Mr. Gbagbo of preparing mercenaries in Guinea to attack rebel positions. Government officials in Abidjan and Conakry have denied this.

There was no immediate word on the number of casualties, but Lieutenant Zoua says some of the dissident rebels were captured in Korhogo.

The supporters of Mr. Coulibaly, who are mainly rebel fighters concentrated in Korhogo, say the former bodyguard is the real leader of the rebel movement and that he plans to return to Ivory Coast from France soon.

They say he should replace Guillaume Soro, who was recently fired by Mr. Gbagbo in the national unity government for failing to attend government meetings in Abidjan. Mr. Soro says his security was never ensured.

Sunday, Mr. Gbagbo, who attended a summit of West African leaders in Nigeria, said he had new ideas to bring peace back to divided Ivory Coast.

But he said he wanted to let Ivorians know first during a televised speech scheduled for late Monday. The opposition, which has been boycotting the power-sharing government since March, was also planning a statement.

Government officials say Mr. Gbagbo is expected to invite major Ivorian political leaders for talks in the administrative capital, Yamoussoukro. The opposition and rebels have accused Mr. Gbagbo of stalling implementation of the French-mediated peace accord signed in January 2003.

A U.N. Security Council is scheduled to visit Ivory Coast from Tuesday to Thursday as part of a regional tour.

"The Security Council will leave no key aspect unturned, if you may allow me to use this expression, to make sure that all the stakeholders really understand that they have got to abide by their own commitment to the specific and various peace agreements that they've signed," said the mission's spokesman, Jean Victor N'Kolo, outlining its goals in Ivory Coast.

There have been angry protests by pro-government militia groups against the several thousand U.N. peacekeepers because they have not started disarming the northern rebels.

Diplomats say the U.N. Security Council is contemplating imposing travel and financial sanctions on government, militia, and rebel leaders as part of efforts to make sure full-scale fighting does not resume.