By Matthew Tostevin
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast's army said on Tuesday it had beaten off the first rebel attack on its positions since a peace deal was signed, as the ruling party called on parliament to reject the French-brokered accord.
The world's biggest cocoa producer is on edge after more than a week of often violent protests by President Laurent Gbagbo's supporters against an agreement they say he was bullied into signing by former colonial power France.
Three rebel factions agreed a truce to allow the talks, although that did not prevent some bloody clashes.
Piling more pressure on Gbagbo to keep to an accord he agreed to, France told Ivory Coast it had no choice if it wanted to save an economy that was once the third-biggest in sub-Saharan Africa and the envy of its troubled neighbours.
Gbagbo's army, which has rejected aspects of the agreement, said on Tuesday it had beaten off attacks since Monday on the hamlet of Belleville, in a cocoa producing area of the west.
Army spokesman Jules Yao Yao said one loyalist had been wounded in mopping-up operations on Tuesday and warned that soldiers would destroy a column of rebel vehicles seen heading towards their lines if French truce monitors did not act.
A spokesman for a 2,500-strong French force said the situation remained unclear and reports of gunshots were being investigated. If confirmed, they would undermine growing optimism that a possible rebel compromise on the defence minister's job might allow formation of a coalition government.
RULING PARTY TURNS ON DEAL
The ruling Ivorian Popular Front dealt another blow on Tuesday to the deal it also signed, calling on other parties to reject it and prevent any rebel participation in government.
"The rebels would get, with the help of the French, what they could not get by force of arms," said deputy Daleba Zozoro.
Democratic Party deputies, the biggest group in parliament, said they would wait to hear from Gbagbo -- who on return from France referred to the accord as "proposals". The presidency said he might address the nation of 16 million on Wednesday.
Opposition to the accord is strong in the largely Christian south but it is widely backed in the rebel-held north, whose mostly Muslim people have long complained of discrimination.
The ethnic divide is at the root of a war that erupted after a failed September coup and which has left hundreds dead, driven more than one million from their homes and raised fears of regional instability.
France advised its 16,000 citizens still in Ivory Coast to leave last week after riots that targeted the French embassy, a military base, businesses and schools. About 500 handicapped people in Abidjan, some blind, others in wheelchairs, on Tuesday demonstrated against the agreement outside the French embassy. Workers were to march on Wednesday.
Thousands of people at a stadium in the rebel stronghold of Bouake, meanwhile, expressed their support for the accord and condemned Gbagbo for not implementing it.
"Ivorians have no choice. If they want to avoid a civil war and rescue their economy, hard hit by the departure of foreigners, they must take the path of reconciliation," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau said in Paris.
Despite differences over Africa, British Prime Minister Tony Blair used a one-day French-British summit in the northern French town of Le Touquet to defend France's role in the crisis.
"I believe that France is handling this in an intelligent and skilful way and you have our full support in doing so," he told President Jacques Chirac at a joint news conference.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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