More Than 100 Bodies Collected in Ivory Coast Streets as New Offensive Looms

Red Cross workers collected dozens of bodies Monday from the streets of a western Ivory Coast city that was the scene of fierce fighting between rebels and government troops, and both sides reportedly prepared for new offensives in the escalating civil war.

U.N. workers also considered protecting thousands of refugees who fled civil wars in neighboring Liberia and are caught up in the ongoing rebellion.

Western regions of the world's leading cocoa producer have seen some of the bloodiest fighting in a nearly three-month uprising that has divided this former French colony in three. Red Cross workers picked up bodies in Man, a city captured by rebels but retaken last week by loyalist forces backed by mercenaries and helicopter gunships.

"There are more than 100 bodies," Red Cross spokesman Simon Pluess said.

Residents say the dead include rebels and civilians.

A Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday both sides were preparing new offensives — the rebels at hill-ringed Man and government soldiers west of Guiglo, some 74 miles south.

Rebels control the west and north while the government holds the south. Recent fighting has shattered an Oct. 17 cease-fire between northern rebels, who started the uprising with a failed Sept. 19 coup attempt, and the government.

Northern rebel leader Col. Michel Gueu told The Associated Press the rebels were ready to cross the cease-fire line and oust President Laurent Gbagbo.

"It's just a matter of days before Gbagbo goes," he said in the rebel-held city of Vavoua. "He's hanging onto any branch he can find, like a drowning man, as if it could save him."

The western fighting threatens thousands of Liberians, who fled to Ivory Coast to escape years of civil war in their homeland.

Aid agencies fear reprisals against Liberians and other English-speaking Africans because notoriously undisciplined Liberian fighters are with the western rebels.

"We are exploring ways to find safer places for the Liberian refugees," said Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency.

Government forces also blew up a Cavally River ferry used to transport refugees, allegedly to keep it from rebels, she said.

As fighting rages, evidence of atrocities mounts. A mass grave, said by villagers to contain 120 people killed by soldiers, was found in central Monoko-Zohi last week.

The government and army deny responsibility and say there are mass graves in rebel territory.

The Rome-based Catholic missionary news agency, MISNA, reported that rebels buried at least 86 paramilitary police officers in a mass grave in rebel-held Bouake.

Peace talks have been deadlocked for weeks over rebel demands that Gbagbo resign and make way for new elections. The rebels include hundreds of disgruntled former army officers.