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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 17:40 GMT
Clamour for Ivory Coast war grows
Ivorian youths hoping to join army
Army training will be accelerated
Thousands of young men have responded to the Ivory Coast Government call for new recruits to fight rebel groups.

The army wants 3,000 new soldiers to try to regain ground lost to two new rebel groups in the west of the country, three months after an uprising by disgruntled soldiers.

How can they isolate us from talks?

A rebel leader Guillaume Soro
Meanwhile, the rebels of the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI) have temporarily pulled out of peace talks in Togo to consult their support base in Bouake.

Talks are taking place in Mali involving army chiefs from the Ivory Coast and its neighbours on how to protect people and property.

A regional summit on the crisis in Ivory Coast is expected to include the presidents of Senegal, Nigeria and Togo in Lome at the weekend.

'Extraordinary'

The BBC's Paul Welsh in Abidjan says thousands of men have been converging on an Ivorian army barracks in the city all day, hoping to join the army.

"They are extraordinary scenes; huge crowds of young men struggling to push their way into the training school of the paramilitary police to go to war," he says.

The military has raised the upper age limit from 26 to 30 under pressure from volunteers keen to go to war in order, they said, "to liberate their country".

The recruitment drive had to be postponed on Tuesday because too many people turned up.

On one side of the complex thousands of people lined up to give their names while on the other, thousands more men - naked - queued patiently for a medical.

Outside the main gate, a huge, excited and angry crowd waited to get in.

Many shouted: "We want uniforms!"

The conscripts threatened journalists, and a western television reporter was manhandled.

French reinforcements

The MPCI rebels, who also announced a recruitment drive on Thursday, have asked France to be "totally neutral" in Ivory Coast.

They warned the former colonial power that it could incur the wrath of West African nations if it "involved itself in one way or another in the crisis".

An MPCI leader, Guillaume Soro, criticised France's "mishandling of the crisis" and warned that it risked turning the country into "another Rwanda".

Ivorian rebel
The rebels started the uprising three months ago

France, which already has 1,200 troops in its former colony, is sending reinforcements to help protect the 20,000 French nationals and other foreigners living there.

The first of a new contingent of several hundred men will be in Ivory Coast in less than 72 hours, a French defence official was quoted as saying by the French news agency AFP.

Pull-out

Mr Soro, who is leading the MPCI delegation in Lome, said that the rebel delegation has decided to temporarily pull out of the talks after the decision by the mediation team to allow separate talks between President Laurent Gbagbo and the major political parties in Abidjan on Thursday.

"We vehemently denounce the new procedure... as an act of collusion with Laurent Gbagbo to keep him in power at all costs, and to unite the major political parties in Ivory Coast against the rebel group," Mr Soro said.

Ivorians hoping to join army
Recruitment comes as peace talks falter

"We are the principal combatants against the Gbagbo regime," he said.

"How can they isolate us from talks in which the MPCI are the main complainants and combatants?"

But he said they were prepared to return to the negotiation table, anywhere, at any time, if the situation changed.

The rebels threatened to walk out of the peace talks earlier this week after the discovery of 120 bodies in a mass grave who they say were killed by government forces.

Since the uprising began on 19 September, Burkina Faso and Liberia have been accused of backing the rebels, who, in turn, charged Ghana with supporting President Gbagbo's government.

At least 400 people have been killed since the uprising by disgruntled soldiers, and hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting.

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Welsh
"They struggled and pushed for hours for the chance to go to war for their country"

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