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Ivory Coast Army Takes Control of Western Town - 2002-12-11

Ivory Coast's army has retaken a western town in a new offensive against rebels seeking to oust President Laurent Gbagbo.

Ivory Coast's army has launched a new offensive against rebels in the rich, cocoa-producing West of the country and recaptured the town of Blolequin, military officials said Wednesday.

Blolequin lies on the road to Toulepleu, a rebel-held town near the Liberian border. Loyalist forces, backed by mercenaries and helicopter gunships, appeared to be reinforcing their positions in Blolequin before advancing.

Rebels captured Blolequin last weekend, as they pushed east from the border with Liberia. Some of the fiercest fighting in a nearly three-month rebellion has been taking place in that region.

The loyalist offensive comes after President Laurent Gbagbo's government called for 3,000 volunteers to sign up for the army and help boot rebels out of the country's north and west.

Ivory Coast has been split in three as a result of a failed coup attempt in September. The government holds the south, including the commercial capital Abidjan, the rebels behind the uprising hold the North, while new rebel factions have recently emerged in the West.

A spokesman for the northern rebels said Wednesday they would declare Abidjan a war zone the next time government forces attack their established lines.

Although the northern and western rebels say their movements are not linked, government officials say they are all working together.

Hundreds have been killed in the conflict so far, and tens of thousands of people have fled their homes. The refugees include thousands of Liberians who fled to Ivory Coast during their country's seven-year civil war.

Peace talks between northern rebels and the government have been deadlocked for over a month in nearby Togo. Rebels threatened to pull out of the negotiations this week over the discovery of a mass grave in central Ivory Coast.

Rebels say government forces killed civilians and buried them in the grave. The government denies all involvement and has said it would welcome an international inquiry. Villagers in Monoko Zohi, where the grave was found by French soldiers, say it contains more than 100 bodies.

A 1,000 strong French force is in Ivory Coast to protect French nationals and monitor an October cease-fire that has faltered during recent weeks.

Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who is mediating the peace talks, is due in Abidjan on Thursday to meet with representatives of the country's main political parties.