Washington, DC — What West African leaders feared most is happening. The complex and chaotic conflict in Cote d'Ivoire has become more confused and spilled over its borders, potentially drawing in a number of its neighbours and threatening a nervous and volatile region, prone to crises and war.
Inside the country, rebel groups, reportedly supported by outside players, are proliferating and accusations are multiplying about who is responsible for what and whom in Cote d'Ivoire.
Meanwhile Monday, Ivorian government troops, backed by foreign mercenaries, continued their assault to retake the strategic western towns of Man and nearby Danane, which fell into rebel hands last Thursday. The area is vital to cocoa and coffee production in Cote d'Ivoire. The harvests are currently under threat, with a potentially devastating impact on the Ivorian economy.
Rebels Sunday captured a third western town, Toulepleu, further south, bringing the renewed war a step closer to the main cocoa belt in the world's number one producer of the commodity used to manufacture chocolate.
Cocoa prices, which have see-sawed since the start of the 10-week crisis, were up two percent in London Monday, as news of the flare-up in fighting reached the markets.
Despite government claims that it had recaptured Man, earlier overrun by rebels, witnesses said fighting continued, with heavy firing as loyalist troops pursued mopping up operations. Residents were reportedly streaming out in anticipation of a loyalist army bombardment of the town. Hundreds of weary refugees had already fled the new battle zones.
Unlike the original rebellion, which witnesses said was generally orderly and disciplined and the population spared, the new rebels are reported to be terrorising civilians and looting their homes, reminiscent of savage acts by anti-government forces during the wars in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The government offensive to try to flush out the rebels from Man followed the withdrawal Sunday by the French military, after evacuating foreigners from the besieged area, via the airport in the town, which the French recaptured on Saturday. The clash with the rebels was the first time the French forces had been drawn into combat since they were dispatched to Cote d'Ivoire to protect their citizens and other foreigners. At least ten insurgents were reported killed, with one French soldier injured.
A man calling himself a rebel commander, Gato Guillaume Prosper, contacted the BBC to warn the French forces that "if they continue to attack our positions, they will raise the spectre of Rwanda here. They have no right to attack us and we will react".
Man was seized Thursday by troops from two new rebel groups that emerged in the Cote d'Ivoire last week, spearheading the latest revolt. These anti-government insurgents go by the name of the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Great West (MPIGO) and the Movement for Peace and Justice (MPJ). Both apparently have close links with neighbouring Liberia.
The previously unknown rebel forces claim allegiance to the memory of General Robert Guei, the former Ivorian military leader, who was killed on the first day of the original rebellion on September 19. The uprising was launched by rebels of the Patriotic Movement of Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI). They still control most of the north of the divided country.
The emergence of the new rebel groups has further complicated already tense stop-start peace talks between MPCI rebels and a government delegation in nearby Togo. The stalled negotiations, brokered by West African mediators, appeared deadlocked last week over mutual demands by both sides. The Ivorian authorities insist the MPCI rebels lay down their weapons. Their adversaries said President Laurent Gbagbo must quit power now, pending truly democratic elections.
But with this fresh challenge to Gbagbo's leadership, and the dramatic appearance of two new bands of rebels, there is more pressure and urgency for Cote d'Ivoire's MPCI dissidents to reach a peace agreement with the government, soon.
The two new rebel groups claim they have nothing to do with the MPCI and vice-versa, with the original rebel group denying any links with the more recent anti-Gbagbo factions. However MPCI spokesman, Guillaume Soro, told journalists in the Togolese capital Lome that they appeared to have a common purpose -- the ouster of Ivorian President Gbagbo.
The newcomers, who are reported to be from Guei's Yacouba ethnic group from the far west, have vowed to avenge his death by forces loyal to Gbagbo. Most of the MPCI rebels hail from Cote d'Ivoire's predominantly Muslim Dioula ethnic group from the north. They say they have been consistently discriminated against by the authorities in Abidjan, the southern coastal metropolis and commercial capital, which has remained under government control throughout the troubles.
West African leaders are scheduled to hold another emergency regional summit in the Ghanaian capital Accra on Saturday to review the Ivorian conflict, which has spread its tentacles across its frontiers, with allegations flying back and forth. An early negotiated settlement to the crisis has become even more imperative, but now looks less likely with the addition of new armed anti-government elements, who are not party to the regionally-mediated peace talks or the ceasefire.
Liberia's LURD rebels, who are fighting to topple President Charles Taylor, have accused him of fomenting the confusion and violence in Cote d'Ivoire and of backing the rebels, to confound their efforts to depose his regime back home.
Interviewed by the BBC Monday Liberia's Defence Minister, Daniel Chea, denied any involvement in the new rebellion, calling such claims "absurd". He accused LURD of trying to create chaos and said the Liberian security forces had been put on full alert at the frontiers. Chea said they were carefully screening all refugees from Cote d'Ivoire crossing his country's borders, to ensure that LURD rebel infiltrators did not slip through undetected. Later the Monrovia authorities announced the formal closure of Liberia's borders with Cote d'Ivoire.
Chea told the BBC his government had made several representations to the sub-region, claiming that Liberian mercenaries were involved in the fighting in Cote d'Ivoire. Residents in the recently rebel-seized areas have reported the presence of Liberian fighters among the new insurgents.
Cote d'Ivoire's eastern neighbour Ghana was recently accused by the MPCI of giving the Ivorian government military assistance, which was promptly denied by Accra.
Cote d'Ivoire has pointed the finger at its northern neighbour, Burkina Faso, alleging complicity between Ouagadougou and the MPCI rebels, whose backers remain the shadowy subject of intense speculation in and outside the region. President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso has repeatedly rejected the Ivorian accusations. He in turn denounced Abidjan for allowing the harassment of its citizens, who have fled in the thousands across the border, after becoming targets of hostile xenophobic attacks. The Burkinabe are the largest immigrant group in Cote d'Ivoire.
The name of Libya keeps raising its head above the parapet, with no proven evidence that its leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, has any direct or incidental role in the Ivorian conflict that has stunned West Africa. But al-Gaddafi is known to have cordial relations with both Burkina Faso and Liberia. The Liberian LURD rebels say the Libyan is allied with Taylor and Compaore to destablise Cote d'Ivoire first, followed by the rest of West Africa.
A meeting was scheduled between Gbagbo and Compaore in the Malian capital, Bamako on Tuesday. Mali, also with a sizeable immigrant population in Cote d'Ivoire, has complained to Abidjan that its nationals have been attacked and even killed. Thousands of Malians, fearful of further prejudice and traumatised by their experiences, have crossed the border to safety back home.
This is the dilemma facing the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which has been poised to send a regional peacekeeping force into Cote d'Ivoire, to replace the French troops who have been monitoring the ceasefire agreed on 17 October between loyalist government and MPCI troops. But the deployment of a West African force has been thrown into doubt by the latest developments. The original truce held for exactly six weeks, with no serious reports of any violation by the French military monitors until the fresh outbreak of fighting last week.
French military commanders have repeated that they have no orders, nor a mandate, to monitor fighting between the new rebel forces and the Ivorian government army. The role of the French Operation Unicorn in Cote d'Ivoire, they say, is to protect their own nationals and foreigners and keep apart the original rebels and loyalist troops.
Intensive French diplomatic efforts in Cote d'Ivoire, to try to help end the conflict in its former colony, as well as West African peace initiatives, appear to have hit a brick wall.