Ivorian warplanes bombed the rebel stronghold of Bouake three times on Thursday, marking the first serious hostilities in a year and a half, and raising the spectre of a full-scale war in Cote d’Ivoire.
Government planes struck the city, some 400 km north of Abidjan, in the early morning, late morning and mid-afternoon, targeting a hotel which the rebels have made their headquarters and the local television transmitter, a French peacekeeper in the country said.
The world's top cocoa producer has been split into a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south since September 2002. Some 4,000 peacekeepers from former colonial power France and around 6,000 UN troops are stationed in the country to keep the two sides apart.
In the capital, Yamoussoukro, Colonel Philippe Mangou of the Ivorian army confirmed the bombings. "We are just trying to reunify our country," he said.
Reuters news agency quoted another military captain as saying a ground offensive was also planned and that the army was hoping to wrap up operations in six days. However, the official army spokesman, Colonel Jules Yao-Yao, would not confirm the information. "It's top secret. We will be commenting tomorrow," he said.
Thursday’s attacks came as Guillaume Soro, the leader of the rebels, known as the New Forces, was in Togo for talks with President Gnassingbe Eyadema about how to resolve the Ivorian crisis.
"We have 50 injured, among them civilians and soldiers," he told IRIN by telephone from the Togolese capital, Lome.
Antoine Foucher, the head of MSF-France in Cote d'Ivoire put the number of injured at 34, including 12 civilians who had been caught by flying shrapnel and bullets.
Last week Soro accused Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo of arming his rivals after a cache of weapons and ammunition was found in a truck entering Bouake. The rebel leader withdrew from a long-delayed disarmament process and warned of a return to war.
On Thursday he was guarded about a rebel response to the bombings. "We already have people in position and are reinforcing, especially along the frontline," he said, adding that he would be returning to Cote d'Ivoire.
One of his commanders on the ground in Bouake was blunter. "The war has kicked off," Cherif Ousmane told IRIN.
As UN humanitarian workers announced they would be suspending their operations across the West African country on Thursday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was deeply concerned at the major violation of a ceasefire agreement which the rebels and the government had concluded.
"He urges President Gbagbo and all Ivorian parties to immediately cease hostilities and to take all possible action to prevent further bloodshed," his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, told a briefing in New York.
Annan chaired talks on the crisis in July in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, where he said that Gbagbo should pass a series of reforms in line with a January 2003 peace agreement and that the rebels should start disarming on 15 October. Neither side stuck to the deal, with each blaming the other for scuppering the peace process.
There were signs on Thursday that tension was increasing in other areas of the country -- particularly in the west, near the border with Liberia.
"We have been warned that the situation could deteriorate rapidly in the west so we have reduced all our activities in Danane," Vanessa Van Schoor of MSF-Hollande told IRIN. Danane is one of the most westerly towns on the rebels' side of the ceasefire line.
And in Douekoue, southeast of Danane on the government side of the line, residents had been given warnings by the army.
"The soldiers asked us to go home and not go out again," one local said.
In the commercial capital, Abidjan, jets patrolled the skies on Thursday, while pro-Gbagbo militants tried to force their way into a hotel where some rebel members of Cote d’Ivoire’s power-sharing government were staying. Hundreds of them also rallied outside the army headquarters calling for all-out military action.
"Cote d'Ivoire is your country and Cote d'Ivoire will stay whole and indivisible," Matthias Doue, the army's chief of staff, told the crowd. "Now the sun is rising on us and setting on others."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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