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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 18:34 GMT
UN to evacuate Ivory Coast refugees
French troops in Ivory Coast
France has been monitoring a repeatedly broken truce
The United Nations has announced it plans to transfer up to 60,000 Liberian refugees from the west of Ivory Coast, which has been engulfed in a crisis for three months.

We believe we do not have a choice

Kamel Morjane
An official for the UN refugee agency, Kamel Morjane, said that the move was necessary to help refugees caught up in the fighting between government forces and rebels.

Meanwhile, rebels have reportedly seized the town of Bangolo, about 40km from the city of Man, which rebels recaptured on Thursday.

And for the first time, Ivory Coast's top opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, has urged President Laurent Gbagbo to resign and call fresh elections.

Ivory Coast, previously seen as a beacon of peace and prosperity in a strife-torn region, has been divided in two, with rebels controlling the largely Muslim north.

'No small matter'

Mr Morjane announced the UN plan to move thousands of refugees after his return from Ivory Coast.

"We are thinking seriously of moving these populations of refugees, between 50,000 and 60,000 people, which is no small matter on the logistical and operational level," he said in Geneva.

"But we believe that we do not have a choice, especially if the front were to continue as it is today, or if the situation worsens further."

However he was unable to give a precise date for the start of the transfer of the refugees, probably to the south of the country, which he said would take place within weeks.

He added that it might become necessary to evacuate the refugees outside Ivory Coast and that the UN had been in touch with countries such as Guinea, Benin, Togo and Ghana.

Mr Morjane's statement coincided with the announcement by another United Nations agency that the UN has dispatched more than 14,000 condoms for distribution to Liberian returnees and Ivorian refugees fleeing into Liberian border towns.

Rebel advance

An unidentified military source quoted by the French news agency, AFP, that rebels have taken the town of Bangolo.

According to locals, government troops in the city did not put up any resistance.

Foreign baby refugee in Abidjan
African expatriates in Ivory Coast have been attacked in Abidjan

"The rebels entered the town virtually without a fight," a local resident told AFP.

The neighbouring town of Man was recaptured on Thursday by two rebel groups, the Patriotic Movement for the Great West and the Movement for Justice and Peace, which say they have merged into a single grouping, the MJP.

Rebel contacts

The main opposition leader in Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara, who has been in exile in Gabon for the last few weeks, has said he will urge the rebels to take part in peace talks.

Alassane Ouattara
Mr Ouattara has fled to Gabon

"I have not had any contact with them, but now I am going to contact all the rebel groups and tell them they should accept to get into the process of discussion and negotiations," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

Mr Ouattara, who was speaking in the Senegalese capital Dakar, where he has met President Abdoulaye Wade, said that he would tell Mr Gbagbo to stand down and call early elections if he met him face to face.

"Ivory Coast is in a terrible mess. The only way to get out of this crisis is to have early elections," he said.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Wendy Urquhart
"The conflict is now in its third month"

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18 Dec 02 | Africa
12 Dec 02 | Africa
09 Dec 02 | Africa
08 Dec 02 | Africa
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