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Saturday, 30 November, 2002, 22:55 GMT
Foreigners flee rebel-held Ivory Coast
French soldier watching fleeing civilians
The French troops have exchanged gunfire with rebels
The first group of foreigners to be evacuated by French soldiers from behind rebel lines in Ivory Coast has arrived safely in the main city of Abidjan.

France is here to facilitate a ceasefire, not to intervene

Rebel spokesman Guillaume Gbatto
A French military transport plane took 83 evacuees from the two western towns of Danane and Man, which have both been seized by a new rebel group fighting the Ivorian Government.

A second aircraft carrying around 80 others has also left the area.

French soldiers had come under rebel fire as they sought to secure the airport near Man in order to take the evacuees - half of whom are French and the remainder other foreign nationals - to safety.

A French military spokesman said five rebels had been killed and that one French soldier had been shot but had not suffered life-threatening injuries.

Drawn into conflict

A spokesman for the new rebel group in the west, the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Great West, warned the French against intervention.

"France is here to facilitate a ceasefire, not to intervene," rebel spokesman Guillaume Gbatto told the French news agency AFP.

The French - who deployed 1,000 troops to monitor a ceasefire between the government and the main rebel group who began an uprising ten weeks ago - have said they would not become actively involved in the fighting.

The BBC's Paul Welsh in Abidjan says that although the French troops are also returning to their original role of protecting French nationals and other foreign citizens, they are increasingly in danger of being drawn into the conflict by the new rebel groups.

Western uprising

The airport now under French control is some 30 kilometres (18 miles) outside Man, which the new rebels seized on Thursday. An estimated 80 French citizens live there.

The new rebel forces began attacking Toulepleu, a town in the west of the country in the early hours of Saturday morning, taking the war further south.

Toulepleu is 85 kilometres south of the city of Danane, where the new rebels first emerged this week.

Until they attacked Danane and Man, the two new rebel groups - the Movement for Justice and Peace and the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Great West - were unknown.

They say they are avenging the death of the former military ruler of Ivory Coast, General Robert Guei, who came from the region.

General Guei was killed in mysterious circumstances on 19 September, the first day of this uprising.

Liberia link

The new rebels have links with Liberia, and some are reported to have crossed the border from Liberia as the fighting began.

The new rebels say they will move south towards the main coastal cities of San Pedro and Abidjan.

The late military ruler Robert Guei
Guei was killed in September
The Ivory Coast army has been sending reinforcements to the Western region, and President Laurent Gbagbo has promised to push the rebels out of the cities they have taken, and out of the country.

The United Nations refugee organisation UNHCR says it is very worried about refugees from other wars, who are now caught up in the new fighting.

Thousands of refugees

There are 47,000 refugees in the area which is controlled by or being contested by the new rebels.

There are about another 25,000 elsewhere in the country.

Most are Liberians, living among the local population rather than in camps.

Ivorian rebel
The rebels started the Ivorian uprising 10 weeks ago
Thousands of people have been made homeless by ethnic attacks following the original uprising in Ivory Coast 10 weeks ago.

Thousands more have fled the country in fear for their lives.

Human rights organisations say people from neighbouring countries have been murdered and victimised, because the government said it believed other countries were behind what it calls "a failed coup".

The measure of the uncertainty in the west of the country can be measured by the fact that people are now fleeing over the border into Liberia.

They are looking for safety in one of the most war-ravaged countries on the African continent.

Paul Welsh reports from Ivory Coast
"An increasingly fragile truce"

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30 Nov 02 | Africa
26 Nov 02 | Africa
25 Nov 02 | Africa
21 Nov 02 | Africa
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