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Ivorian Rebels Seize Western Town of Bangolo - 2002-12-20

Rebels in Ivory Coast Friday have continued their march, taking control of a new town in the west of the country.

Residents in Bangolo say rebels marched into town with little resistance from government troops. The town lies just 40 kilometers south of the strategic city of Man, which fell to the rebels early Thursday after two days of intense fighting.

French troops have set up base in the town of Duekoue, another 40 kilometers south of Bangolo. French commanders in the area say they do not intend to let the rebel forces move past the Sassandra river, which lies further south from Duekoue, halfway to the key cocoa town of Daloua.

The rebels have vowed to press on until they have conquered the entire country. But it seems unlikely that they will prevail against heavily armed, battle-hardened French Legionnaires.

The rebels advancing in western Ivory Coast are from the faction known as the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Far West (MPIGO). Residents say many of the fighters patrolling in Man are English-speaking and believed to be Liberian.

Despite the presence of the French troops, MPIGO fighters have advanced quickly in recent days, and a different rebel group already holds most of the north of the country.

A senior government official told VOA this week that the Ivorian military would not be able to keep the rebels at bay without help from French and West African troops.

France has already deployed some 1,500 troops to its former colony with a mandate to enforce the tattered cease-fire. French officials say they will send a total of about 2,500 soldiers in the next few weeks.

The regional group ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has pledged to send its own peacekeepers to Ivory Coast by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, one of Ivory Coast's top opposition leaders has given his first interview to Western media since fleeing into exile late last month. Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara told the Associated Press news agency in Dakar he plans to begin talks with rebels and political parties, seeking new elections.

Mr. Ouattara has strong support among the rebels in the north of Ivory Coast, although he has in the past denied having any formal links with them. Until now, he has not joined in their calls for President Laurent Gbagbo to step down. But Mr. Ouattara told the Associated Press the only way out of the crisis is to have new elections in which everyone is represented, including all political parties and the rebel groups.

Mr. Ouattara was barred from running for president in the year 2000 because of allegations that he was not really an Ivorian citizen, and his Rally of Republicans party largely boycotted the elections. He has since been granted formal citizenship.

Mr. Ouattara went into hiding on September 19, the night the latest troubles erupted in Ivory Coast. Another opposition leader, former military ruler General Robert Guei was killed that night, and Mr. Ouattara believes a death squad was out looking for him, as well.

He took refuge in the French embassy for weeks until leaving the country for Gabon at the end of November. He claims to have had no contact with the rebels until now, but he now says he intends to open a political dialogue with them.

Mr. Ouattara says he believes he would be killed if he returned to Ivory Coast.