Ivory Coast rebels seize control of 30-mile strip

The seizure of Toulepleu extends the gains made by the rebel army in Ivory Coast.

Updated: Mar 08, 2011, 12:24 PM IST

Abidjan: The government of the democratically elected president of Ivory Coast has confirmed that rebels allied with their leader had seized control of a nearly 30-mile (50-kilometer) corridor along the country`s border with Liberia following an intense weekend battle.

The seizure of Toulepleu on Sunday afternoon extends the gains made by the rebel army, which earlier had seized another town called Zouan-Hounien. Both towns have historically been controlled by Laurent Gbagbo, the country`s strongman who is refusing to cede power even though the country`s election commission declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner of the Nov. 28 vote.

At the beginning of the three-month standoff, Ouattara distanced himself from the northern-based New Forces rebels, who fought a 2002-2003 civil war to try to oust Gbagbo. Ouattara argued that he did not want to be seen as having taken the country by force when he had won the election fairly, according to both the country`s electoral body and the United Nations which certified his victory.

In recent weeks, however, his administration has acknowledged the role of the rebels — known by their French acronym, FN — who are making inroads including in the commercial capital of Abidjan. A section of the city called PK-18 is now fully under Ouattara`s control and checkpoints there are being manned by young men who openly acknowledge being members of the FN force.

Ouattara`s defense spokesman Capt. Leon Kouakou Alla said the town of Toulepleu is strategically important because it was from there that Liberian mercenaries were being recruited to fight for Gbagbo. It was considered a difficult area to take because the town`s garrison includes a "Stalin`s organ" — a Katyusha rocket launcher capable of firing multiple rockets at a time.

"After yesterday`s combat, the republican forces loyal to the president of the republic took the town," he said. "The recruitment of mercenaries used to be carried out from Toulepleu from a little place called Pekan-Ouebly ... The importance of this is that now that we have occupied this place we have cut off Gbagbo`s rear base."

There was no immediate response from Gbagbo`s camp. Saah Nyuma, the deputy director of the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, said he heard the sounds of explosions coming from Ivory Coast. At least one mortar shell fell on the Liberian side of the border during the fighting on Sunday.

Analysts fear Ivory Coast`s political crisis following the disputed presidential election will spill over into a civil war that could reach across neighboring countries. During Liberia`s civil war, Gbagbo backed the MODEL rebel group against warlord Charles Taylor, and there are persistent reports that Gbagbo has brought Liberian mercenaries to the capital to help him fend off an international force.

Back during the country`s civil war, the FN rebels also received help from a Liberian faction — this one allied with Taylor. One ex-Liberian combatant from Taylor`s disbanded army told The Associated Press he was now serving as a "field commander" in Ivory Coast for Ouattara`s forces.