In Ivory Coast's rich West, arrival of Liberian fighters pushes fear to fever pitch

BYLINE: CLAR NI CHONGHAILE, Associated Press Writer
© The Associated Press Newswires

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) - Ex-combatants from civil wars that devastated Liberia and Sierra Leone are flowing into the growing conflict in Ivory Coast - spreading terror and raising fears that the blood-letting of neighboring West African countries will engulf once-peaceful Ivory Coast.
Notoriously doped-up and trigger-happy, the foreign fighters' emergence near the western border with Liberia in recent weeks has sparked an exodus of thousands of civilians from the lush west of the world's leading cocoa producer.

"They break down the doors, they come to steal and rape," said Soro Koronan, a teacher, fleeing the western rebel-held town of Danane in the back of a pickup truck. Danane is just 27 kilometers (17 miles) from Liberia.

Beside him, Elisabeth Bohoussou unscrewed a plastic container to show a cell phone submerged in thick, orange peanut sauce. "It's the only way we could make sure they didn't take it," Bouhoussou says, referring to the Liberians - who have gained a sickening reputation in this war-torn region.

During Liberia's brutal 1989-1996 civil war, fighters hacked hands off civilians, raped women and murdered civilians in their hundreds.

In neighboring Sierra Leone, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, became infamous for chopping off the hands, feet, ears and noses of civilians.

Sierra Leone's civil war ended in 2001 - but the gunmen from both conflicts are still around.

In Ivory Coast, where the government and French troops are trying to contain a four-month-old rebellion, there is no evidence yet of the worst of such horrors.

But the very fact that ill-disciplined Liberian and Sierra Leonean renegades are joining rebels in this former French colony has shadowed prospects for a peaceful end to the fledgling war.

Liberian fighters can easily be identified in Francophone Ivory Coast because they speak English. Liberia was founded by freed American slaves.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the Liberians: the indiscriminate violence of their attacks.

Last month on the main road south of the western rebel-held city of Man, rebels sprayed a minibus with machine gunfire, robbed the passengers and then set fire to the bus.

Five people were killed and 11 injured. In Toulepleu, near the border with Liberia, a priest said rebels, including Liberians, came to his mission, and aimed their guns at him.

"Some are not in their right minds," the priest said by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "Some wanted to attack us. Others were calmer."

Nobody knows why the Liberians have come - some diplomats suspect looting may be the only aim - but their arrival has complicated a war that has already claimed hundreds of lives and displaced tens of thousands.

Ivorian army officers say the rebels use the Liberians as an advance team - letting them loot villages, before moving in to claim control.

Ivory Coast's conflict started when a northern rebel group tried to oust President Laurent Gbagbo in September. The group quickly seized the northern half of the country.

In contrast with insurgents in the west, the northern rebels won an early reputation for good behavior, although there have recently been some reports of looting.

Northern insurgents are fighting to safeguard the mainly Muslim northern tribes from alleged discrimination by southern tribes - mainly Christian and animist - that have traditionally dominated Ivory Coast.

Some northern residents describe the insurgents there as protectors. It's not something you hear in the West.

"If there were no Liberians, we would have stayed," said Kamel Assaf, a Lebanese trader evacuated by the French in November from western Man.

"They loot, they take cars by force. That's what scared us, because they told us they were Liberians," Assaf said.

The western rebels deny they are linked to the northern faction, although government officials say they are all working together.

"The developments in the West are more worrying than anything that has happened in the North previously, because we are dealing with people who are unpredictable and we know less about them," said one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. Gbagbo's supporters have accused Liberia's warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor of funneling guns and cash to the rebels.

Liberian Information Minister Reginald Goodridge's response: His government cannot rule out the presence of Liberian mercenaries, but the government does not sanction their action.

Taylor launched Liberia's civil war with a failed coup attempt in 1989, and emerged as the strongman - assuring himself victory in the elections that followed.

A northern-based rebellion persists in Liberia. Taylor and his aides remain under long-standing international sanctions for what the United Nations says is gun- and diamond-running with the rebels of Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

Western rebel leaders, who deny the presence of foreign fighters, agreed this week to suspend hostilities. Just 24 hours later, however, fighting flared again in the volatile southwest, with the government and western rebels trading blame for firing first.

The western rebel leaders say they will take part in French-brokered peace talks in Paris on Jan. 15.

The question is whether they will be able to impose this decision on the ill-disciplined foreign fighters.

The French army also says there may be many uncontrolled groups in the West, operating with different aims.

Originally, the western rebels said they wanted to avenge the death of former Ivory Coast junta ruler, Gen. Robert Guei, who was shot dead at the start of the September uprising.

Now, their demands match those of the northern rebels, who want Gbagbo to resign, and who accuse the president of fanning ethnic hatreds.

Last week, the western rebels threatened to march on the southwestern port of San Pedro - a key hub for the vital cocoa industry in Ivory Coast.

AP-NY-01-10-03 1511EST

© Robert W. Kranz  January-2003