Ivory Coast: December 22, 2002


: The situation in the Ivory Coast has turned sour for the government in mid-December. The first reports on 15 December were from a soldier who had escaped from the battle front. He reported that Biakouma and Semien, north-east of the town of Man, had been taken by two rebel groups and about 135 persons had been killed. Like many African wars, the Ivory Coast rebellion would involve forces hopping from town to town, since the population centers are islands of resources. The key to this war will be the economic center of Abidjan, a city of high-rises, highways, and international businesses, as well as one of Africa's most vital economic hubs and ports. 

Rebel and loyalist troops in Man dueled with heavy artillery throughout the night of the 17th. By morning, the city of 135,000 had fallen to the rebels and France decided to send an additional 1,500 peacekeeping troops by the end of December. About 300 troops, light armor and helicopters boarded the military naval transport vessel Foudre at the Toulon naval base, in southern France. 

Positively identified was the Foreign Legion's 1st Company/ 2nd Paratrooper Regiment, which was flown in to take up at positions on the Sassandra River near Guessabo, 37 miles west of Daloa. These Legionnaires set up posts armed with anti-tank missiles and rocket launchers, vowing to block any rebel attempt to cross the Sassandra and make a sprint for the commercial capital, Abidjan. The 150 paratroopers were also armed with a tough new mandate - to shoot anyone threatening their ability to enforce the ceasefire. 

This is a new French tactic, since they swore off being Africa's policeman in the late 1990s. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin then ushered the ``ni-ni'' (neither-neither) policy for Africa: neither indifference, nor interference. In the case of the Ivory Coast, the stakes are too high to ignore: cocoa prices have been climbing sharply since the rebellion started and manufacturers promise a sharp spike for the New Year. Then again, there are also the largely unexploited oil fields just offshore.

Meanwhile Senegal has called on the United Nations to intervene in the war and is irked at the French government, for not allowing it's 600 troops on standby since late November to enter the embattled country. Senegal currently holds the rotating presidency of a 15-nation ECOWAS west African bloc, and does not like being slighted.

The rebels claim that they know the local terrain well enough not to be obliged to pass through Duekoue (which is only 55 miles south of Man) to get to Abidjan.
Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West (MPIGO) rebels overran Bangolo, about 25 miles from Man, on the 20th after encountering virtually no loyalist resistance. In Dakar, Senegal, opposition leader Alassane Ouattara joined the rebels for the first time in demanding that President Gbagbo end the crisis by stepping down.

French troops exchanged fire with advancing rebels near the western town of Douekoue on the 21st, using their light armored vehicle cannon on targets while a truck-borne mortar unit set up near a school. The rebels took the town of Blodi, just outside Duekoue, which straddles a secondary road that would allow them skirt French positions and push on to Abidjan. Loyalist forces initially fled, leaving 40 French troops posted near Blodi to face a rapidly-approaching convoy of rebels in pickup trucks and other vehicles. 

The French fired one warning round, quickly followed by a second and when the rebels responded with assault rifle fire, French forces blasted the lead rebel vehicle with rounds from one of their light armored vehicles. French light armor also destroyed the next two pickup trucks. While light-arms fire drove back French troops attempting to inspect the destroyed vehicles, they saw one body and one rocket launcher. Soldiers think four to seven other rebels were killed, but their bodies were taken away by comrades. 

While the Far West Ivory Coast People's Movement (MPIGO) end-run was stopped and no French soldiers were wounded, the Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement (MPCI) claimed that the action against the MPIGO unit clearly showed that the forces of the former colonial power were "exceeding their mandate and acting like real conquering forces of occupation". Could this be MPCI's excuse to join the fight against the French? - Adam Geibel


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