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Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 20:03 GMT
Ivorian opposition leader flees Abidjan
Rebel soldier
The rebels want President Gbagbo to resign
The main Ivorian opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, has left Ivory Coast after spending two months sheltering at the French ambassador's residence in the commercial capital Abidjan.

Mr Ouattara's departure was announced by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who earlier met President Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan to try to revive stalled peace talks between the government and rebels.

Alassane Ouattara is no longer staying at the French ambassador's residence, and everything was done with President Gbagbo's agreement

Dominique de Villepin

The minister did not say where Mr Ouattara was going, but French diplomats were quoted as saying his destination was not one of Ivory Coast's neighbours or a European country.

One official in Mr Ouattara's Rally of Republicans (RDR) party told Reuters news agency the RDR leader had left for Gabon.

President Gbagbo's government has accused Mr Ouattara of organising and financing the rebellion, and recently described him as a "bone of contention" between Ivory Coast and France.

The opposition has denied the allegations and blamed the ruling party for failing to solve the crisis.

'Embarrassment'

Mr Ouattara and his wife left the residence in a helicopter, under French military protection.

Alassane Ouattara
Mr Ouattara has gone into exile before

"Alassane Ouattara is no longer staying at the French ambassador's residence, and everything was done with President Gbagbo's agreement," Mr de Villepin said.

The BBC's Paul Welsh in Abidjan says France's protection of Mr Ouattara had become an embarrassment for the former colony.

A month ago, thousands of youths supporting Mr Gbagbo rioted outside the French base in Abidjan, asking for Mr Ouattara. The demonstrators were pushed back by French troops with tear gas.

Mr Ouattara's departure follows the resignation earlier this week of all four RDR ministers from the broad-based government over its management of the two-month crisis and what they described as human rights abuses.

Separately, an Ivorian human rights group says it has evidence that death squads have been active in Abidjan, killing dozens of people opposed to the government.

Rebel forces control the largely Muslim north, while the mainly Christian south remains in government hands. Peace talks in the Togolese capital, Lome, have become bogged down over political differences.

Alleged violation

Earlier on Wednesday, French troops acting as a buffer force in Ivory Coast said they had found no evidence of an alleged rebel violation of the month-long truce.

The Ivorian army had accused the rebels of advancing in 20 vehicles across a key bridge on the river Sassandra early on Wednesday to within 70km of the main north-western town of Man.

The Ivorian army had said it would "act immediately", although the rebels denied launching an attack.

"Rebels in about 20 four-wheel-drive vehicles" had attacked military positions "at the eastern front line between Seguela and Man," Lieutenant-Colonel Jules Yao Yao said in a televised statement.

"The armed forces consider this attack as a step too far and have decided to act immediately," he said.

Man is an important city in the cocoa industry about 500 kilometres (310 miles) north-west of the main city of Abidjan.

Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa - the raw ingredient of chocolate.

Rebel denial

One of the rebel leaders, Tuo Fozie, denied that rebel forces had broken the ceasefire.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin
France is trying to speed up the peace talks
"We have since the start of the conflict not had any troops stationed in the area indicated by the spokesman for the military," he said in a statement from the rebel headquarters in Bouake, quoted by the French news agency AFP.

Hundreds were killed in fighting before the truce was signed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes.

The rebels, who began their uprising on 19 September, insist that President Gbagbo must step down and want fresh elections to be held, supervised by international monitors.

Mr Gbagbo says he was democratically elected and so should serve his full term in office.

He has offered to hold a referendum on changing the constitution - another rebel demand - but this was dismissed.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Welsh reports from Abidjan
"Mr Ouattara went to the French for protection shortly after the uprising began"

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26 Nov 02 | Africa
25 Nov 02 | Africa
21 Nov 02 | Africa
18 Nov 02 | Africa
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