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Ivory Coast Troops Said to Reclaim Western Town - 2004-06-07

Authorities in Ivory Coast say government soldiers have retaken a town they say was captured by rebels early Monday. But the rebels deny they were involved in any attack. The renewed unrest comes as President Laurent Gbagbo is visiting the United States.

A top presidential aide says government soldiers quickly retook the western town of Gohitafla Monday after re-deploying in the area.

The town, which is close to a major sugar factory, is about 100 kilometers west of the rebel stronghold of Bouake. It was the scene of fierce fighting during the civil war in late 2002, which divided Ivory Coast.

The top government official in that region, Ibrahima Fofana, said the rebel attack happened in the early morning hours. Mr. Fofana said two soldiers, one policeman and two peacekeepers from a French rapid reaction force were injured during the unrest. He did not know how many rebels took part.

But a rebel spokesman in Abidjan, Sidiki Konate, denies his group, known as the New Forces, was behind the attack. He said the government's claim is a provocation to resume war. "We think this can be a manipulation from the side of Mr. Laurent Gbagbo with the help of some people who have interest that war will begin in Ivory Coast. We are all now looking for these people for the reason why they attacked and what they wanted to obtain with this attack," he said.

Militias close to Mr. Gbagbo have been operating in western areas near the dividing line between northern-based rebel and government troops. French and U.N. peacekeepers are also present in the region.

The cease-fire has held since it was signed in May of last year, but the January 2003 power-sharing peace accord has yet to be implemented.

There was also unrest in the southern commercial capital Abidjan Monday as police fired tear gas to disperse pro-Gbagbo protesters who were trying to throw rocks at the French embassy, accusing France of siding with the rebels.

The renewed tensions come as Mr. Gbagbo is visiting the United States to meet with lobbyists, members of Congress and business executives interested in investing in Ivory Coast's cocoa, oil and timber industries. Mr. Gbagbo also hopes to meet with African leaders who have been invited to a meeting with the leaders of industrialized countries who will be attending the Group of Eight summit starting Tuesday in the southern United States.

Government officials, the opposition and rebels in Ivory Coast all agree that the president's time away from Ivory Coast could be very tense. He is not scheduled to return until next week.