ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Rebels in western Ivory Coast attacked French troops Monday and French officials said 30 rebels were killed and nine soldiers wounded. The fighting dampened peace hopes after northern rebels and the government agreed resume talks.
Clashes near the strategic western town of Duekoue came just days after President Laurent Gbagbo and Ivory Coast's main rebel movement, based in the north, agreed to obey a cease-fire and meet in Paris on Jan. 15 for fresh negotiations.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin drew their consent during a weekend visit to the former French colony, aimed at resolving a conflict that has divided the country, killed hundreds of people, caused thousands to flee their homes and threatened West Africa's already tenuous stability.
The two rebel factions operating in the cocoa- and coffee-producing west did not meet with de Villepin. They have never agreed a truce, and their position on the peace talks was not known.
It was not immediately clear what sparked the fighting Monday near Duekoue, which straddles main roads leading to the central town of Daloa and the southwestern port of San Pedro — both in government hands.
A French army spokesman, Lt. Col. Ange-Antoine Leccia, said late Monday nine French soldiers had been injured. One soldier's injuries were "fairly serious" and he had been operated on, Leccia said.
"There were 30 dead on the rebel side," he added. The fighting died down late afternoon, Leccia said.
"We faced attacks by rebels on foot on two roads," said French Maj. Frederic Thomazo in Ivory Coast. He said the rebels fired mortars and the French responded.
More than 2,000 French troops — including Foreign Legionnaires and paratroopers — are in Ivory Coast to enforce the cease-fire and protect some 20,000 French citizens and other foreign nationals.
The leader of one western rebel faction said he ordered attacks because Ivorian government forces bombed his positions this weekend.
"I have ordered my men to attack everywhere and to head for Abidjan," Sgt. Felix Doh said by satellite telephone. Doh has repeatedly threatened to march on Abidjan, the commercial capital some 310 miles southeast of Duekoue, which is the key to control of Ivory Coast.
But an Ivorian army spokesman said government forces halted all operations in the west after Gbagbo declared a suspension of hostilities Friday.
Doh's rebel faction has clashed several times with French troops, who have dug in around Duekoue, manning checkpoints with anti-tank missiles and rocket launchers.
Thomazo said there were two attacks on French positions Monday: one on the road north from Duekoue to the rebel-held city of Man, some 60 miles away, and the second on a dirt road northeast of Duekoue.
Northern rebels, after meeting with de Villepin, had said they would inform western factions about the decision to respect a nationwide cease-fire.
But Baptiste said Monday's attacks showed at least some rebels in the west "don't seem to associate themselves at all" with the northern factions' decision.
"We are asking ourselves lots of questions about the number of uncontrolled groups in this region," he said. "The objectives pursued by one seem to be different from those pursued by another."
He said France would not allow any rebel groups to endanger French citizens or jeopardize the "relative stability" prevailing since the truce was re-established.
But even as fighting raged, the chairman of the regional economic bloc behind the cease-fire initiative said France had the "possibility of bringing the two sides together." As the former colonial master, France had the interest and the influence to succeed where West African mediators had failed, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told journalists in Dakar.
He said Gbagbo had sent him the draft of a promised settlement for comment ahead of the Paris talks, and added that France also had a "realistic" plan. He declined to provide details.
He also said he had approached U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council for the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in Ivory Coast.
Ivory Coast's conflict began when the northern rebels tried to oust Gbagbo on Sept. 19 and seized half the country. They agreed on a cease-fire with the government in October, but peace talks in nearby Togo yielded little and fighting resumed within weeks. The two western factions emerged later, reportedly joined by Liberian fighters notorious for drug use and extreme violence.