Heavy fighting resumed Monday in Ivory Coast, where government forces launched new attacks on rebels in the central city of Bouake.
Residents in Bouake said gunfire was heard for much of the day Monday, as government forces approached the rebel-held city, Ivory Coast's second largest, from the south, east and west. The insurgents, meanwhile, continued to rush in reinforcements from the north.
The government's assault came a day after President Laurent Gbagbo refused to sign a cease-fire agreement that had been brokered by West African mediators.
Toussaint Alain, an aide to President Gbagbo, spoke to VOA from Paris, where he said the Ivorian government did not agree with the accord, because it did not commit rebels to disarm immediately.
He said the government has decided to go ahead with an offensive on Bouake, a large city, where, he said, rebels have been holding hundreds of thousands of people hostage for nearly three weeks. The official said the government finds it intolerable, and intends for the ongoing operation to liberate the city from those he referred to as illegal combatants.
Bouake, along with several other cities in the north and center of the country, has been in the hands of rebels since they launched their initial attacks on September 19. Residents said loyalist forces on Sunday regained control of the town of Sakassou, about 60 kilometers north of the nation's capital, Yamoussoukro.
France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, has troops posted in the area of Yamoussoukro, and is providing logistical support to the Ivorian armed forces. Scores of French soldiers have been patrolling the region, and manning checkpoints just north of Yamoussoukro.
People in villages surrounding the combat zone expressed fear that the fighting would spread. Mrs. Ndri Koffi, a merchant, said she has not been able to go out to do her work for fear that both government and rebel attacks may spread. As a convoy of French armored vehicles passed by, she said she is happy the French are here. She said she feels like the French are protecting her and her village. She said she is afraid, and she thinks the French should stay and protect Ivory Coast because, she said, "they are the ones who colonized us."
France says the mandate of its troops in Ivory Coast is only to protect its nationals in the country and provide logistical support.
For now, analysts say it appears unlikely that rebels might penetrate the French-monitored security zone and proceed south to Abidjan, as they have vowed to do.
Foreign governments, however, on Monday continued to urge their nationals to leave Ivory Coast, amid concern that the violence may continue to escalate.