More than 100 French peacekeeping troops have been sent to restore order in the unruly rebel-held city of Man in western Cote d'Ivoire, following a bank raid there at the weekend, lieutenant colonel Georges Peillon, a spokesman for the French peacekeepers, said on Monday.
He told IRIN that intruders broke into the Man office of the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), which manages Cote d'Ivoire's currency, the CFA franc, before dawn on Sunday.
They forced open a safe and stole computer equipment, but it was not year clear whether any money was missing, he added.
Last month, 23 people were killed in heavy fighting when intruders broke into another branch of the BCEAO in the rebel capital Bouake and escaped with 50 billion francs (US $83 million) of banknotes.
Officials at the BCEAO head office for Cote d'Ivoire in Abidjan were not available for comment on the events in Man, 580 km to the northwest.
The town was originally the headquarters of MPIGO (the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Great West), one of three rebel movements that together have controlled the north of Cote d'Ivoire since the country erupted into civil war in September last year. Man has been plagued for several months by sporadic fighting between rival factions of rebel forces based in the district.
The French army spokesman said the bank raid was followed by an outbreak of shooting in Man on Sunday morning. This calmed down after the French troops arrived a few hours later. However, an aid worker in Man, contacted by telephone by IRIN, reported further shooting in the town on Monday morning.
Gaspard Deli, a senior commander of the mainstream Patriotic Movement of Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI), who was sent to restore order in Man several weeks ago, told IRIN by telephone that he had seen no evidence of any break-in at the local branch of BCEAO.
He said the shooting on Sunday had simply been the result of clashes between rival rebel factions in the town.
Sidiki Konate, the official rebel spokesman, denied reports in some Ivorian newspapers that the French peacekeepers would disarm rebel fighters in Man. He stressed that their presence in the town would be temporary.
"There is no question of disarming the New Forces (rebels) and much less of redeploying French forces of Operation Unicorn in our zone," Konate told IRIN by telephone from Bouake.
Peillon, the spokesman for France's 4000-strong peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire, said: ""We will stay there until security has been re-established."
Diplomats and relief workers have suggested privately that the cash-strapped rebel leadership may itself be behind the two bank raids in the north. They have also expressed fears for the security of the BCEAO branch in the rebel-held town of Korhogo, near the northern frontier with Burkina Faso.
The rebels signed a French-brokered peace agreement with President Laurent Gbagbo in January and joined a broad-based government of national reconciliation in April. But they suspended their participation in the peace process on 23 September, complaining that Gbagbo had failed to delegate sufficient powers to cabinet ministers.
Since then the political situation in Cote d'Ivoire has been deadlocked and tension has been rising. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been trying for the past two weeks to organise a reconciliation summit between Gbagbo and the rebels to break the impasse.