DUEKOUE, Ivory Coast – Residents fleeing the western city of Man told of corpses scattered in the streets. No one thought this could happen in Ivory Coast, but in Man, the fall from grace of this West African nation can be seen — and smelled.
"We went through living hell," said Carlos Fardom, a Frenchman who fled the city in the heart of the nation's rich cocoa belt on Wednesday. He said he saw two Mi-24 helicopters, two tanks and heavy machine guns during the loyalist attack to reclaim Man this week.
Ivory Coast has been split three ways after a rebel uprising on Sept. 19. The government holds the south, including the key port and economic hub of Abidjan, the rebels behind the uprising hold the north, and new shadowy rebel forces are battling the army in the west.
Residents said shooting could be heard in Man on Wednesday as army troops continued to hunt down rebels.
"There are bodies everywhere," Fardom said. "We never thought this could happen here," he said in Duekoue, 60 miles south of Man.
"The loyalist forces had tanks, heavy arms and shells," he said. "Honestly, I was traumatized."
A two-month rebellion in Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer and a former French colony, has degenerated into a multi-fronted war, and the fiercest battles are being fought between government forces and rebel groups in the west.
"Some people don't want to go out, because the bodies in the streets are decomposing, and it smells bad," said a man, who identified himself only by his first name, Ndri. He fled from Man to Duekoue on Wednesday in a battered blue car, flying a white flag from the antenna.
Ivory Coast's government has been battling since Sunday to drive out the newly emerged rebel band in the west. The rebel force burst into action last week by seizing Man and at least two other towns.
The western campaign opened a new front in Ivory Coast's war, which broke out in September when northern-based rebels attempted a coup against President Laurent Gbagbo.
The new fighting has shattered an Oct. 17 cease-fire, which is being monitored by a 1,000-strong French force.
The western rebels have also seized the town of Danane, just 18 miles from the border with Liberia, itself battered by a brutal seven-year civil war and an ongoing rebellion.
Residents of Man and Danane have said Liberians were among the rebels, although the insurgents deny the claim. Government officials also say Liberian mercenaries are operating in the region.
No official figures have been given for casualties in the latest fighting. Residents in Danane said government helicopters opened fire on the town last week.
"Helicopters bombarded the town, but then they went away," said Abraham, a mason who gave only his first name.
The northern-based rebels accused government forces Wednesday of also strafing the town of Pelezi with helicopter gunships. Antoine Beugre, a rebel spokesman, said "numerous deaths" had been caused by the attack on the town, which is about 200 miles northwest of Abidjan.
At the time of the attack, Pelezi was crowded with locals who had come from surrounding villages for market day, and most of the victims were civilians, Beugre said.
Neither Ivory Coast nor French military authorities could immediately be reached for comment on the claim. It was the second reported gunship attack in a week on Pelezi.
West African leaders adamantly denied Wednesday that peace efforts had collapsed. Despite the fighting, talks continue in Lome, capital of the West African nation of Togo.
"The search for peace does not depend upon the speed with which it is obtained, but rather the substance," President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali said.
Toure spoke in Lome, where he met for two hours Wednesday with rebel and government delegates from Ivory Coast.
The northern- and western-based rebel groups have insisted they are not linked, although the western rebels — seen as less disciplined, and therefore more feared — say they would welcome union with the northern rebels.
The rebels in the predominantly Muslim North say they are battling discrimination by the government in the heavily Christian south.
The newly emerged rebel movement in the West, meanwhile, says it is fighting to avenge Ivory Coast's former junta leader, Gen. Robert Guei, who was killed in the first hours of the coup attempt. Guei had a large following in Ivory Coast's West.