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Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 21:16 GMT
Ivory Coast: Who are the rebels?
Rebel soldiers with a pile of weapons in Ivory Coast
There are now at least three groups of rebels
The BBC's Paul Welsh

Perhaps the only thing now clear about Ivory Coast's war is that it is confused.

Until now, what began here on 19 September has been called a mutiny, an uprising or a failed coup; it is taking on all the characteristics of a classic West African fight.

We took up arms because they killed Robert Guei - I am fighting to avenge the general

Felix Doh, MPIGO
There are chilling similarities with the beginnings of the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone when new rebel groups sprang from the bush with alarming suddenness and regularity.

Fighters from both those other West African wars are now fighting with the newer rebel movements in the west of Ivory Coast.

Three rebel groups have appeared in Ivory Coast:

  • The Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement (MPCI) - which was the first to take up arms against the government
  • The Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP)
  • The Ivorian Popular Movement of the Great West (MPIGO)

In mid-December the leader of MPIGO told the BBC his movement and the MJP had merged and were now known simply as the MJP.

Attacks marked arrival

The two new groups took advantage of a break in the ceasefire between the Ivory Coast Government and the MPCI to announce their arrival with attacks on cities in the west of the country.

The city of Danane, 20 kilometres from the Liberian border, was the first to fall to the new rebels on 28 November - both of the largely unknown groups claim to have been responsible for its capture.

The Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) then took Man, the main city of the region, 70km further towards the centre of the country.

The late military ruler Robert Guei
Guei was killed as the uprising began
On 30 November, the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Great West (MPIGO) moved further south and attacked Toulepleu.

The region where they are fighting is by the Liberian border in the tribal homeland of the former military ruler General Robert Guei.

The general was killed in mysterious circumstances on the first day of the original uprising in September.

He had been accused of being behind the unrest; he had seized power in a coup in December 1999 and later lost it to the current President, Laurent Gbagbo, in elections.

Both the MJP and the MPIGO say they are fighting to avenge General Guei's death and that they want President Gbagbo out of power.

Family affair

Felix Doh emerged as the leader of MPIGO, he now says he is the leader of the combined MPIGO and MJP.

Deli Gaspard is the other main leader in the west of the country.

Little is known about them, or their background.

The first real sighting of them was on their journey to the peace talks in Paris, until then they had communicated mostly by satellite telephone.

"My men have taken Danane, are going all the way to San Pedro," he said, speaking of the second biggest port in Ivory Coast.

Map of Ivory Coast
"We took up arms because they killed Robert Guei. I am fighting to avenge the general."

In those first days of the new western rebels, a man representing the MJP phoned the Reuters news agency to say he wanted the head of Laurent Gbagbo and that "we are going to go all the way to Abidjan," the main city of Ivory Coast and capital in all but name.

Some of those fighting for the two new rebel groups came over the border from Liberia to fight.

Many of them appear to be more interested in the fighting as an opportunity to loot than as a struggle for any cause.

They come from Liberia and Sierra Leone, two countries which have both suffered from long, vicious and inter-related wars involving numerous rebel movements.

The rebels from both countries and from Guinea have supported and provoked each other's conflicts.

It seems they are now doing the same in Ivory Coast.

The United Nations has imposed sanctions against Liberia because of the role it played in supporting rebels in Sierra Leone during the bloody conflict there.

Stable neighbour collapses

Ivory Coast had traditionally been the stable neighbour, now it looks in danger of being added to a sad list.

Ivorian rebel
Some rebels are more disciplined than others

As peace talks began in Paris the Prime Minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan said it was important to stop the war in Ivory Coast.

"If we don't stop the war in Ivory Coast it is certainly going to continue moving on - to the east there is Ghana, Togo, a little further Nigeria and then Cameroon.

"It is going to keep moving. No-one thought there would be a war in Ivory Coast. So, why has there been a war - because there was war in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea."

The presence of fighters from the other West African conflicts in the western rebel movements is reflected in the way the newer rebels groups are behaving, far more violently and with far more intimidation of the population than the original rebel force.

There are reports from Danane and Man of drug-taking and looting among the rebels there. They are said to be scruffy and undisciplined.

Those who have held the northern half of the country since September are the opposite.

They are not angels.

I have seen some under the influence of drink or drugs, and they have carried out summary executions, but they are famously said to pay for everything they consume and there is an air of discipline among their number.

It is the MPCI who have signed a long-standing truce with the government and who have entered into peace talks in the nearby country of Togo.

The western rebels signed a temporary truce to allow them to take part in the peace talks in Paris, but before that they had repeatedly clashed with French troops.

Threatened demobilisation

The main and original rebel force began as a group of around 700 soldiers who took up arms against their own country because they were about to be demobilised against their wishes.

They had been brought into the army by General Guei when he was in power and some had fought in the first coup.

President Laurent Gbagbo
Some rebels have called for Gbagbo's head

The mutineers, as they were, finished the first day of fighting in control of the northern half of the country but they were forced out of Abidjan and the south.

Soon they adopted the name MPCI and made more definite demands, the uprising became the coup attempt the government had always said it was.

Since then, they have been joined by others, including ex-soldiers who had been living abroad, and they have recruited heavily in the areas they hold.

Their number has swelled considerably.

They want President Gbagbo to step down and for there to be elections within six months, open to all Ivorians.

Previously, leading opposition politicians have been refused the right to stand and a controversial new Ivorian identity card is likely to prevent many people - most of them opponents of the government - from voting.

The government says the MPCI is supported and directed from abroad, with the backing of a foreign country.

No evidence has been offered to support the claims, but it is clear that the rebels are getting funds from somewhere.

What is much more clear is that the new, more shady, groups do have links across the borders.

The BBC's Paul Welsh
"The government are lumping all of these groups together"

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See also:

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