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Ivory Coast Rebels Threaten War if Attacked - 2002-12-23

The three Ivory Coast rebel factions say they will consider any future French attacks on their fighters to be an act of war. The declaration came after the three groups met to plan a joint strategy.

The three rebel groups say from now on, any French military attack against any of their positions will be considered a declaration of war. They say they will then launch a joint attack on all fronts.

The three rebel factions issued a joint statement after meeting in the northern rebel stronghold of Bouake. The meeting followed a clash Saturday between French troops and fighters from the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Far West.

The French soldiers stopped the rebels from advancing farther toward the administrative capital, Yamossoukro and the commercial center, Abidjan.

The rebels accuse the French of siding with the government, and of firing first. But the head of the French army on Sunday said his troops had responded in self-defense after the rebels attacked them.

French General Henri Bentegeat said France has no interest in taking sides in the war in its former colony.

"Do not ask us to take sides here, for the north against the south or for the south against the north," said General Bentegeat says. "Do not ask us to take sides with one ethnic or political group against another."

France has deployed roughly 1,500 troops in Ivory Coast, and plans to expand the force to 2,500 within the next few weeks. General Bentegeat says he is prepared to keep his troops in the country for years, if necessary, to enforce a cease-fire and maintain stability in the former French colony.

Meanwhile, defense ministers from the 15 nations of the Economic Community of West African States are meeting in Abidjan to work out details of their own planned peacekeeping force. The group hopes to deploy its troops within the next week-and-a-half.