By Clar Ni Chonghaile
GUESSABO, Ivory Coast, March 8 (Reuters) - French troops repulsed attacks by swarms of rebels in western Ivory Coast on Saturday, only hours after the warring factions signed a deal in Ghana to try to end more than five months of civil war.
The crackle of automatic gunfire could be heard coming from the west of Guessabo early on Saturday after the French army said the rebels tried to punch through onto the main highway between Duekoue in the west and the cocoa centre of Daloa.
"They were everywhere. It was not big groups, 15 here, 15 there. We succeeded in making them leave," Colonel Emmanuel Morin, commander of French forces in the west, told Reuters.
French reinforcements headed towards the western front on Saturday afternoon. About 50 French military vehicles, including nearly 30 armoured personal carriers, were on the road between Guessabo and Daloa.
The clashes erupted as Ivorian rebels and feuding politicians finally agreed in Ghana's capital Accra to set up a joint security council and form a new government by March 14, including all major political groups and rebel factions.
Civil war broke out in the world's biggest cocoa grower after a failed coup in September. Several thousand people have died and more than a million have fled their homes.
Months of talks have failed to stop the fighting, despite a truce signed by the main rebel faction the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI) in October and another signed by two allied rebels groups in the west in January.
The Accra meeting brought together all 10 parties to a French-brokered deal reached in late January, which had stalled over a row about the allocation of key cabinet posts.
The three rebel groups and seven political parties, including President Laurent Gbagbo's ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), removed some obstacles to implementing that deal.
State television said a new government with 39 ministers would be formed, including 10 from Gbagbo's party, seven each for the two main opposition parties and seven for the rebels.
"Let us now hark more on what can bring us together than what can divide us," Ghanaian Foreign Minister Hackman Owusu-Agyemang said at the conference centre in Accra.
The new National Security Council will have 15 members -- one representative from each of the 10 signatories, the army, the paramilitary gendarmerie and the police force, as well as Gbagbo and Prime Minister Seydou Diarra.
But the resurgence of fighting in the lush, cocoa-rich west of the former French colony left a dark cloud hanging over the breakthrough made in Ghana after two days of wrangling.
The west, near the border with Liberia, has become increasingly anarchic as rebel groups, Liberian mercenaries fighting for both sides and ethnic militias have formed groups to loot and kill.
Heavy fighting broke out in the western town of Bangolo on Friday when a Liberian force based in Ivory Coast attacked rebel positions. Witnesses say the so-called Lima Force works closely with the regular army, a charge Ivory Coast denied on Saturday.
Rebel commander Ousmane Coulibaly told Reuters it was this attack which prompted the reprisals on Saturday near the key junction town of Duekoue and all along the road towards the strategic river crossing between Guessabo and Dibobly.
"It started last night, there were infiltrations in Dibobly and they reattacked Dibobly and a loyalist checkpoint on the river this morning," said Colonel Morin, adding that skirmishes with the rebels lasted nearly seven hours.
Morin said French troops, backed by at least four Gazelle helicopters doing reconnaissance flights, had cleared the area around Duekoue and Ivorian troops had maintained positions in the town. Two French soldiers received light injuries.
About 3,000 French troops are in Ivory Coast to protect their remaining citizens and to police a shaky ceasefire line. Foreign Legion soldiers have been dug in at Duekoue for months.
"My troops wanted to take revenge against the (Ivorian army) but the French army got in between," Coulibaly told Reuters.
Ivory Coast's army said on Saturday it had nothing to do with the attack on Bangolo and appealed to the international community to sort out the mess in the west.
"We must, above all, stop what is starting to look like the shifting of Liberia's own conflict onto Ivorian territory and the risk of tribal war," army spokesman Jules Yao Yao said.
The French army said it had detained about 110 men with guns and some 60 civilians fleeing from Bangolo into Duekoue on Friday night. French army spokesman Philippe Perret said the fighters appeared to be Liberian members of the Lima Force.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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