Cote d'Ivoire's army bombed the rebel stronghold of Bouake on Thursday, rebels, army officials and French peacekeepers told IRIN. Some of the sources described the bombardment as the opening salvo in a return to war in the West African nation.
"We have just been bombed this morning by two planes," Cherif Ousmane, a New Forces rebel commander in the town, told IRIN. "The war has kicked off."
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.
"There was an operation on Bouake this morning," Colonel Philippe Mangou of the Ivorian army said by telephone from Yamoussoukro. "This is not a declaration of war, we are just trying to reunify our country."
A spokesman for the French forces, Colonel Henri Aussavy, said two government Sukhoi 25 planes had bombed Bouake, around 400 km north of Abidjan, early Thursday morning.
"It looks like a declaration of war," Aussavy said. "We cannot say for sure if it is a one-off attack or part of a bigger operation." He declined to comment when asked what the French forces now intended to do.
A UN official in Cote d'Ivoire, who declined to be identified, also confirmed the Bouake bombing but said they were still assessing the number, size and nature of the targets.
New Forces leader Guillaume Soro said by telephone from the Togolese capital, Lome, that about 50 people had been injured in the attack.
"We have 50 injured, among them civilians and soldiers," he said. "We already have people in position and are reinforcing, especially along the frontline."
Last week the rebels declared a state of emergency in the northern half of the country and withdrew from a long-delayed disarmament process, saying the government had failed to push through reforms in line with a French-brokered peace accord concluded in January 2003, and a West African summit held in July this year in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.
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