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Ivory Coast: Thousands Flee Rebel-Held Bouake - 2002-10-10

In Ivory Coast, thousands of people are reported to be fleeing the rebel-held city of Bouake, in the central part of the county. The exodus comes after two days of heavy fighting that ensued when government troops tried, unsuccessfully, to re-take the city.

Eyewitnesses in Bouake say thousands of residents have been streaming out of the city, taking advantage of a two-day lull in the fighting between the rebel Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast and government forces. Some estimates say as many as 150,000 people - or nearly a quarter of the population of Bouake - have fled.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Abidjan, Simon Pluess, says his organization has not been able to learn how many people are fleeing. But he says, if the numbers are large, it could mean the town is experiencing a severe food shortage, because the local economy has collapsed.

"People have been gradually using up their food stocks, and are naturally getting into a more critical situation," he explained. "The banks are closed, as well. So, even, if there is food, people don't have the money to buy food."

Some of the heaviest fighting between the two sides took place earlier this week in Bouake, the country's second largest city after the coastal commercial hub, Abidjan. Mr. Pluess says many of the displaced are probably heading toward Abidjan, where hundreds of French troops have been deployed to protect foreigners, and to give logistical support to the army.

Ivory Coast's crisis began three weeks ago, when the rebels staged a bloody uprising in the north of the country that left hundreds dead. Since then, they have successfully fended off government troops attempting to recapture Bouake and other areas under rebel control.

Ivory Coast's president, Laurent Gbagbo, ordered the offensive against Bouake on Sunday, after he rejected a cease-fire proposal, pulled together by West African mediators, that would have kept the front lines where they were, and allowed the rebels to keep their guns.

Under increasing international pressure to negotiate a peace deal, President Gbago Wednesday said his country was ready for talks with the rebels, if they first laid down their weapons. The rebels say they do not trust the Ivorian leader to honor a peace agreement, and are refusing to disarm. They are vowing to capture Abidjan, overthrow the president and organize new elections.

Meanwhile, the rebels have advanced into the world's most important cocoa-growing region in the western part of the country. The news that the rebels are within 30 kilometers of the key town of Daloa has sent cocoa prices to a new high, on fears that exports will be disrupted.