Côte d'Ivoire

Côte d'Ivoire: Unidentified gunmen attack police stations in Abidjan suburb, occupy nearby town

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ABIDJAN, 24 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Unidentified armed men attacked two police stations on the outskirts of Abidjan on Saturday night and went on to occupy the town of Agboville, 80 km to the north, the armed forces of Cote d'Ivoire said in a statement read on out on state television on Sunday.

Five policemen were killed when the "unidentified and heavily armed individuals" attacked the base of the paramilitary gendarmerie and the nearby police station in Anyama, a northern suburb of Abidjan at around 10 pm (2200 GMT) on Saturday night, it said.

The government rushed reinforcements to the area and four of the attackers were killed in the subsequent shoot-out, it added.

The attackers then withdrew to Agboville, where they attacked the gendarmerie and police posts and the local prison on Sunday morning in broad daylight, the statement said.

"The defence forces are at this very moment trying to regain control of the situation," it added.

The attack was not immediately attributed to the New Forces rebel movement which has occupied the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire since a civil war broke out in September 2003.

Some reports circulating in Abidjan suggested that the assault may have been carried out by a dissident faction of President Laurent Gbagbo's own armed forces.

Spokesmen for the 6,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire and the 4,000-strong contingent of French troops which supports it, said they did not know who the attackers were.

This latest outbreak of violence occurred at a crucial moment in Cote d'Ivoire's battered peace process. The disarmament of rebel forces and pro-government militia groups is due to take place over the next two months, clearing the way for presidential elections to be held on 30 October.

But this deal, agreed at a peace summit in the South African capital Pretoria at the end of June, is in danger of coming unstuck.

Opposition sources said the G7 alliance of rebel forces and parliamentary opposition parties was not satisfied with the latest round of political reforms legislated by decree by President Gbagbo by on 15 July.

G7 leaders met over the weekend and were planning to announce a boycott of the presidential election unless the reforms, agreed with international mediators, were implemented in full, the souces said.

Rebel leader Guillaume Soro, who returned to Cote d'Ivoire last week after a four-month period of absence abroad, postponed a press conference he was due to have given on Sunday in the rebel capital Bouake.

Residents Grand Yapo, a village 10 km south of Agboville, told IRIN that the attackers had released all the prisoners in Agboville jail, some of whom had been recaptured in Grand Yapo.

Reuters quoted a military source as saying the attackers had released between 1,500 and 2,000 prisoners.

A similar mass release of prisoners took place at the main prison in Abidjan in November last year during several days of anti-French riots by Gbagbo supporters.

The inhabitants of Grand Yapo, armed with hunting rifles, machetes, axes and bows and arrows, had blocked the main road to Agboville. They refused to let a group of international journalists, including a correspondent for IRIN, advance into Agboville itself.

"We have no idea who these people are, but we are ready to fight them," said Mboke Gberi, the head of the self-defence force in the nearby village of Petit Yapo. "When the war first broke out it was us who ensured security on this road," he added.

Returning to Abidjan, the correspondent for IRIN saw 10 trucks full of government soldiers leaving the capital in the direction of Agboville.

The UN peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire, known by its French acronym ONUCI, said it was on a "state of alert" following the weekend attacks.

ONUCI said in a statement on Sunday that it was dispatching military units to Agboville to "contribute to restoring calm."

"ONUCI strongly condemns this attack, which could jeopordise the important progress made in the peace process, particularly after the second Pretoria meeting of 28 and 29 June," it said.

The UN mission called on all parties to "refrain from any action that could further contribute to the deterioration of an already worrying situation.

Colonel Philippe de Cussac, the spokesman of the French peacekeeping force, said a French military helicopter had flown over Agboville on Sunday afternoon and the town appeared calm.

Life went on as normal in the city of Abidjan, where there were plenty of people on the streets on Sunday, but the United Nations temporarily suspended all missions by UN staff to the interior.

Moussa Traore, a young mechanic who witnessed the night-time assault on the gendarmerie base in Anyama, said the attackers wore military uniform and and made off with all the guns they could find.

"They killed a gendarme in his car at the petrol station by the gendarmerie post and then attacked the post itself. Everyone fled, but the clash went on for several hours," he told IRIN.

"By the time morning was approaching the attackers had seized all the arms in the post. They then asked anyone who wanted to to to follow them and left towards Agboville, leaving five dead bodies behind them," Traore said.

A police officer on the scene said the nearby police station had been attacked by gunmen wearing a different type of military uniform to the police. The attackers seized all the guns in its armoury, he added.

Driving north, the raiders killed a forest guard at a security checkpoint in the village of Azaguie, eyewitnesses in the village told IRIN.

[ENDS]

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