Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Troops secure Ivory Coast's ceasefire lines

REUTERS , TEAPLEU, IVORY COAST

French and West African troops secured Ivory Coast's ceasefire line on Saturday in an operation to bring order to an anarchic western region seen as the biggest threat to the return of peace.

A truce line now runs right across the world's biggest cocoa producer, where an accord between rebels and President Laurent Gbagbo is gaining momentum and raising hopes of a complete end to a war that has split Ivory Coast since September.

"It's not an easy mission," said French commander Colonel Christian Anette. "It would be a lie to say there will be peace in the west tomorrow, but I think we will lower the degree of violence and reduce the number of people killed."

Thousands of people have died and more than one million driven from their homes since the war was triggered by a failed attempt to overthrow Gbagbo. Rebels hold the largely Muslim north of the diverse country and chunks of the west.

French troops ordered back the small group of loyalist "Special Forces" at the cluster of mud huts marking the front line just outside the village of Teapleu.

As the soldiers from the former colonial power dug in, another column of French and West African trucks came down to meet them from the direction of the rebel lines.

More than 750 French and West African troops set off on Friday in two convoys, each more than 10km long, to take control of the west's main arteries and start to establish a weapons-free buffer between rebels and loyalist troops.

Complicated by the presence of hardened Liberian fighters on both sides, the war in the west has been more vicious and lasted longer than elsewhere. Atrocities against civilians have continued despite a largely respected May 3 ceasefire.

Here and there on the road to Teapleu, bodies lie where they fell. The stench of putrefaction reveals others in the bush.

Many combatants are young, some just teenagers, and there is little to tell ragtag loyalist militiamen from their rebel enemies. A few sport womens' wigs -- a favoured fashion accessory for fighters in West Africa's years of strife.

The war has inflamed traditional tribal hatreds, but for some it is just a chance for plunder and causing mayhem.

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