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Sunday, 6 October, 2002, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
Ivory Coast slips toward civil war
Government-held territory south of Bouake
Government troops are pushing towards Bouake
Ivory Coast troops and rebel soldiers have exchanged gunfire on the outskirts of the rebel stronghold of Bouake, held by mutinous soldiers for more than two weeks.

As the build-up continued, Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo said on Sunday he had refused to sign a ceasefire with the rebels. He described them as attackers.

Togolese Foreign Minister, Koffi Panou, one of the West African mediators trying to facilitate an agreement, said the Ivory Coast Government was arguing that the rebels should disarm first.

The mediation efforts have been aimed at ending an uprising which has split the country into two, claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands displaced.

Government and rebels forces have been sending heavy reinforcements to the front line.

French military observers say the government has moved hundreds more soldiers into at least two positions on the outskirts of Bouake.

There are also reports that the rebels have sent a convoy of 40 heavily-armed vehicles towards Bouake from Korhogo, their second-largest stronghold.

Delaying tactics?

A scheduled meeting at which West African mediators were due to urge President Gbagbo to authorise the signing of a truce was delayed.

French soldier
1,000 French troops are monitoring events on the ground
Later, Mr Panou said: "For the moment, they will not sign. The ceasefire will not take place."

The government has twice failed to sign the deal - on Friday and Saturday.

The mediators have warned that they would leave if the Ivory Coast government failed to sign for a third time.

The country's foreign minister has already apologised for the failure to sign on Saturday.

He said the government had simply forgotten to write a letter of authority for the army commander to sign the ceasefire agreement.

The BBC's Paul Welsh in Ivory Coast says members of the mediation team are not convinced - and diplomats agree with the Ghanaian defence minister that the government has been deliberately dragging its feet.

Our correspondent says the government only agreed to talks under pressure from the mediation teams sent by neighbouring countries and has been preparing for an offensive to recapture the rebel-held north.

Rebel commander in the northern town of Korhogo
The rebels are holding much of north and central Ivory Coast
The rebels have been calling for the overthrow of President Gbagbo and for fresh elections in which all political parties would be allowed to participate.

Many of the rebels come from the largely Muslim north of the country and have long complained of discrimination by Christian southerners.

Sunday's ceremony was supposed to take place in Tiebissou, effectively the front line since rebels took control of northern areas 17 days ago.

Mediators were sent by the regional body, Ecowas, in the hope of stopping the violence escalating into a full-blown civil war.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Welsh
"People continue to flee the rebel-held areas"
Emmanuel Goujon on BBC Focus on Africa
"This offensive is undermining the peace process. We are more in the logic of fighting than in the logic of negotiations"

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See also:

03 Oct 02 | Africa
02 Oct 02 | Africa
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