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Peace Seems a Long Way Off in Ivory Coast as the Year Ends - 2002-12-31

The West African nation of Ivory Coast erupted into full scale civil war in the year 2002. The conflict began as a military uprising in September, and quickly threatened to destabilize not just Ivory Coast, but the whole region.

Ivory Coast was once considered the jewel of Francophone West Africa, an economic powerhouse and island of stability in an otherwise troubled region.

Not anymore. Ivory Coast has joined some of its neighbors in learning first hand about the brutality of civil war. Hundreds of people have died in three months of fighting, and thousands more have fled their homes for safety.

The conflict erupted on September 19, when mutinous soldiers in the commercial center, Abidjan, tried to overthrow the government of President Laurent Gbagbo. They failed. The coup attempt was foiled.

In apparent retaliation, opposition leader and former military ruler General Robert Guei was killed and his house burned down. The home of another opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, was also burnt, and Mr. Ouattara took refuge at the French ambassador's home for weeks before finally fleeing the country.

Meanwhile, the rebels, calling themselves the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI), launched a wider uprising and quickly took over the northern and central parts of the country.

Not long afterward, the MPCI and the Ivorian government opened peace talks in Lome, Togo, and the two sides signed a cease-fire in October.

But in November, the situation was complicated when two new rebel movements emerged in western Ivory Coast. These groups, the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West and the Movement for Justice and Peace, have not signed any cease-fire. They continue to clash both with government forces and with French peacekeepers in Ivory Coast.

As the year drew to a close, a team of UN human rights experts visited Ivory Coast to investigate allegations that both sides in the conflict had committed atrocities against civilians. The U.N. team left the country not long before New Year's Eve, saying they had seen evidence of systematic abuse in government-held areas and summary executions by the rebels.

The roots of the conflict are complex. The government has blamed foreign governments, especially Burkina Faso, for backing the rebels in an attempt to destabilize Ivory Coast.

In remarks broadcast on national television toward the end of December, President Gbagbo continued to point a finger at foreign interests. "The reason for the war is found elsewhere, not here," said the president. He said 28 percent of the residents of Ivory Coast are foreigners, and the country has to deal with not just new immigrants, but with people who are descended from previous immigrants.

The president and many of his followers blame the opposition leader, Mr. Ouattara, for sparking the rebellion. Mr. Ouattara was not allowed to run for president in the year 2000 because of allegations he was not really an Ivorian citizen.

His critics, among the rebels and elsewhere, accuse President Gbagbo of fanning ethnic tensions since taking office.

There is an ethnic dimension to the conflict. Mr. Gbagbo is a southern Christian who remains popular in Abidjan and surrounding areas. The strongest support for Mr. Ouattara comes from rebel-held northern Ivory Coast, which is largely Muslim; while the insurgents in the west are loyal to slain General Robert Guei, who came from that area.

Although they disagree on some key issues, all three rebel factions share the same goal they want President Gbagbo to resign, and they want new elections. They complain that their ethnic groups are discriminated against by the present government.

"Our place is in the rebel stronghold of Bouake, on the ground with the Ivorian people," said rebel leader Guillaume Soro of the MPCI, "fighting to oust the 'genocidal regime' of Mr. Gbagbo."

In the middle, trying to keep the two sides apart, are roughly 2,000 French troops sent to enforce the cease-fire. France has become increasingly embroiled in the war in its former colony, and French troops have repeatedly clashed with western rebels on a small scale.

Visiting his troops just before Christmas, French army chief of staff General Henri Bentegeat said France intends to remain neutral.

"France is not taking sides in the internal Ivorian debate," he said. "The rebels, do not scare us at all." General Bentegeat said his troops will have nothing to do with the rebels as long as they do not interfere with the French mission to protect the cease-fire.

The rebels said they will attack on all fronts if the French provoke them. But so far, despite several small clashes in the west, the insurgents appear unwilling to go head-to-head against the well armed, battle hardened French legionnaires.