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New Fighting Troubles Ivory Coast - 2002-12-04

New fighting has broken out in western Ivory Coast between government troops and rebels.

Rebels with a newly formed faction say Ivory Coast government forces, backed by foreign mercenaries, attacked the western town of Toulepleu near the Liberian border.

A spokesman for the rebel faction said government forces used helicopter gunships to attack targets in the town. Military officials confirmed they had launched an offensive to take back the town, which was captured by rebels last week. Both sides claimed to have control of Toulepleu.

The government said it had pushed into Toulepleu after a battle to recapture the city of Man, which was among those taken by rebels with two new factions.

The new groups are separate from the original rebel group that calls itself the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast. That group has been holding the center and north of Ivory Coast since a failed coup attempt in September.

Meanwhile, peace negotiations between the government and the MPCI rebels entered their fifth week in Togo. The talks appeared to hit yet another snag when rebels suggested they might reject the latest draft peace accord.

The group's external affairs coordinator, Louis Dacoury-Tabley, said the draft is an accord between the government and political parties, and does not address the rebels' main demands, which include the resignation of President Laurent Gbagbo.

Mr. Dacoury-Tabley said he is surprised because after more than a month of negotiations to end a conflict between the government and the rebels, the mediators are talking about an agreement between the government and political parties.

The negotiations have made little progress thus far.

New outbreaks in fighting have raised fears that Ivory Coast, once the most stable nation in West Africa and the world's main source of cocoa, may be slipping into an all-out civil war.

The conflict has prompted thousands of people to flee their homes, with many of them escaping across the border into neighboring Liberia.