Thu, May 29, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Ivory Coast rebels restore an uneasy order

LIBERATORS The brash young gunslingers freed the area from well-armed lawless Liberian gunmen pillaging across the border in chaotic looting frenzies


Ivory Coast rebels ride through the town of Danane in the western Ivory Coast. Although a ceasefire line separating rebel and government troops will be monitored by French and regional peacekeepers, and a unity government is in place, the Ivory Coast is still divided after eight months of war.


To people of this west Ivory Coast town, the rebels manning the checkpoint known as "The Gates of Hell" are brash young gunslingers who saved the town from violent Liberian gunmen.

The rebels are sharp-tongued and fond of racing around in doorless pickup trucks at top speed, AK-47s and shoulder-held grenade launchers at the ready. In the eyes of grateful residents, the rebels freed Danane from the lawless Liberian gunmen pillaging across the border here in far west Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast's rebels "saved us, and peace is coming back," said Patrick Bessoueu, a resident of Danane. "People call them rebels, but we call them liberators."

Since April, Ivory Coast's insurgents have struck out in search of gunmen who have taken advantage of the chaos of Ivory Coast's civil war to flood across the frontier with Liberia.

Well-armed renegades from Liberia's own conflicts, the Liberian gunmen have looked for jobs as mercenaries in Ivory Coast's war if they could get them, and for loot if they couldn't.

Residents fleeing the 70,000-resident Danane in the weeks under the Liberian gunmen's rule had spoken of killing, raping and robbery in the streets.

In government-held parts of the west, where no such campaign against the Liberians had been mounted, journalists saw corpses rotting in the roads over the weekend. Houses had recently been burned.

A January peace accord brokered by the French quelled most of the battles in this former French colony, the world's largest cocoa-producer. The civil war had broken out in September with a coup attempt against President Laurent Gbagbo, whom rebels accused of fanning ethnic hatreds.

The country remains divided -- the rebels holding the north, the government the south.

The west was more fiercely contested -- and, chiefly because of the Liberian presence, a killing zone still.

This checkpoint of cinderblocks lies on the outskirts of Danane. It's decorated with an Ivory Coast flag, shells, animal horns and a wood-and-mud statue of a bearded old man that the rebels contend has special powers.

The town, before the rebels came, "was complete hell," said a rebel corporal who identified himself only as Debase -- explaining how the checkpoint got its "Gates of Hell" tag.

"When the Liberians came here it was total insecurity," said Sergeant Alimata Kone, one of the few women to join the rebel ranks as a soldier, in camouflage uniform and boots. "They traumatized everyone. Thank God they're gone."

Rebel Sergeant Cherif Ousmane took fewer than 100 soldiers with him in early April when the top rebel brass dispatched him to the west to rid the zone of Liberians.

"This town was dead, the population terrorized," Ousmane said.

The Liberians had easily slipped across the two countries' heavily forested border. Liberia's seven-year civil war in the 1990s, followed by a growing rebellion now, has created a ready pool of young men with guns and no future, ready to steal a living with an AK-47.

Liberia acknowledged there were Liberian fighters in Ivory Coast and said it was trying to stop them.

Rebel commanders insisted this weekend, as a French military-led peacekeeping force moved into the west, that they had driven the Liberians out of rebel-controlled areas.

Indeed, Danane's main market was bustling with people, and several restaurants were open. But schools and banks were shuttered, money was scarce and coffee and cocoa harvests rotted in the fields.

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