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French Troops Attempt to Bring Order to Ivory Coast's 'Wild, Wild West' - 2003-05-26

Hundreds of French troops in Ivory Coast have begun enforcing a no-weapons zone in the country's western region, along the border with Liberia.

About 700 French soldiers and a group of West African peacekeepers have started searching for Liberian mercenaries armed with guns and machetes in what is known as "the wild, wild west" of Ivory Coast.

What was once a thriving coffee and cocoa-growing region is now the most lawless in the country in the wake of the Ivorian civil war. Civilians complain of ongoing rapes, lootings and killings by Liberian mercenaries fighting for both sides in the conflict.

French soldiers are securing a no-weapons zone of about 2,400 square kilometers, after setting up positions on the western cease-fire line separating rebels and Ivorian forces.

By agreement, rebels and Ivorian government forces are retreating to major towns on either side of the zone, where only French and African peacekeeping troops will be allowed to have weapons. The area contains about 100 villages.

Meanwhile, rebels say they have started chasing their former Liberian allies back to Liberia, and rebel commander Smaila Bakayoko said he has confidence the Ivorian army will do the same.

"We are all men of honor," he said, "so agreements are being respected." The rebel commander said he now considers himself a member of the Ivorian army.

Despite such statements, and the establishment of a reconciliation government that includes the rebels, Ivory Coast remains divided between northern and western rebel-held zones and the government-run south.

The major obstacle to ending the division has been the inability of rebels, the army, and political parties to agree on a new defense minister to unite the rival armed factions.