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Foreigners Flee Ivory Coast Amid Anti-Immigrant Sentiment - 2002-11-16

Thousands of foreigners continue to flee Ivory Coast, amid rising anti-immigrant attacks that have been triggered by the country's two-month-old rebellion.

Most of those leaving are nationals of Mali and Burkina Faso, neighboring nations that have for generations sent millions of workers to labor in relatively prosperous Ivory Coast.

The government of Mali on Saturday launched a program to repatriate thousands of its nationals who have asked to leave. Burkina Faso took a similar measure in recent days, sending convoys of buses to pick up hundreds of Burkinabe immigrant workers.

Those leaving tell stories that have become all too common in Abidjan. Thirty-five-year-old Filbert Kiendrebeogo says he is not leaving, but he is sending his wife and two children home Monday on a bus convoy organized by the Burkina Faso government.

Mr. Kiendrebeogo tells VOA, security forces burned down the illegal shantytown where he lived.

He speaks of how soldiers abducted him and a group of other foreigners, drove them to a military camp outside the city, beat them, and took their money. Those who did not have money, he said, were told they would be killed, and were led away. Mr. Kiendrebeogo says to this date, he has not seen them.

The government of Mali complained last month, after Malian residents in the Ivorian city of Daloa reported that government forces had executed a number of Malian residents. The reported killings took place shortly after government forces took back control of the city from rebels. The government said it would investigate.

Anti-immigrant sentiments, already high before the insurrection, have been further fueled by the Ivorian government's contention that the rebellion was launched with the help of Burkina Faso. Burkinabe officials deny the allegation.

The government of President Laurent Gbagbo has called for an end to attacks on foreigners, but the call has gone largely ignored.

About one-third of the estimated 16 million people in Ivory Coast are immigrant workers, mainly from Burkina Faso and Mali. Analysts warn a massive repatriation could hurt the economies of those countries, which are already among the poorest in the world.

Filbert Kiendrebeogo says he has lived a large part of his life in Ivory Coast, and has no hopes of finding a job in Burkina Faso. However, he says, he plans to leave Ivory Coast, and join his family as soon as he gets his wages at the end of the month.

"Burkinabes are not safe here," Mr. Kiendrebeogo said. He said they are being beaten, robbed, and killed. "It is better at this point to go home," he said.

Talks to end the conflict have dragged on in the Togolese capital, Lome, where rebels on Thursday rejected the draft of a partial peace accord. The rebels complained it did not address their main demand: the resignation of President Gbagbo.

Rebels also rejected a part of the draft that called for their immediate disarmament. The insurgents say they will not disarm, until after the conflict has ended.

The talks have been weighed down by distrust on both sides. Each accuses the other of carrying out executions, torture, and other atrocities. A cease-fire continues to hold, but both sides have warned they are ready to resume fighting if the negotiations fail.