BOUAKE, Ivory Coast, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast was on edge on Monday as a rebel deadline for President Laurent Gbagbo to start forming a new government with rebels in key posts, or face more civil war, expired.
Since the rebels fired off the ultimatum last week, they have tempered their threats and a rebel team was still seeking regional backing on Monday for their inclusion in a new government, in line with last month's Paris-brokered peace plan.
The rebel team left Ghana for Nigeria on Sunday after talks with Ivory Coast's new Prime Minister Seydou Diarra about the unity government. They were due to meet Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in Abuja before flying onto Mali.
The rebel deadline expired at midnight on Sunday.
But at the main rebel stronghold in the former French colony's second city of Bouake, nothing was being ruled out, and a pro-rebel protest against French troops blocking rebel advances was planned for Monday.
A spokesman for the Patriotic Movement for Ivory Coast (MPCI) said rebels were waiting to hear what an international team set up to make sure the accord is applied would say about their complaint that Gbagbo was backing out of key points.
Rebels say they were promised key posts in the defence and interior ministries but Gbagbo has cast doubt on their assertions and stressed he would have the final say on nominations, whatever Diarra came up with.
"We will see what happens in the coming hours," said MPCI's Antoine Beugre in Bouake, 350 kms (219 miles) north of the coastal commercial hub Abidjan. "Nothing is excluded."
FIGHTING IN THE WEST
Ivory Coast's civil war erupted after a failed coup attempt in September. Officials say thousands have been killed and more than one million have been forced to flee their homes.
The MPCI holds the north of the country, while two other rebel factions control large chunks of the west of the world's largest cocoa producer. It was not immediately clear what the western rebels would do about the ultimatum.
But as the deadline approached, reports of more fighting in the west emerged. One rebel commander said his forces were being attacked by Gbagbo's troops and that he had been forced to call off a trip to Bouake for talks with the MPCI.
"They are attacking us all the time. The French must open the road so that we can advance towards San Pedro and Abidjan to end the war," Felix Doh, a commander with the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Far West (MPIGO), told Reuters.
More than 3,000 French troops are here to protect foreign nationals and police a ceasefire line. Rebels have urged the French to stand aside, saying the soldiers are the only obstacle blocking their path to the two ports of Abidjan and San Pedro.
Rebels in Bouake said the French had told them that if they did let the insurgents cross the ceasefire line it could mean violent reprisals against French citizens in Abidjan.
The economic capital of some three million people was tense on Sunday. Thousands of foreigners have fled the sprawling lagoon-side city in the past two weeks after anti-French riots.
Traffic on a blistering Sunday afternoon was sparse and as night fell, pickups with mounted heavy machine guns patrolled the streets ahead of a 10 p.m. (2200 GMT) curfew.
While Abidjan's residents waited anxiously, few in Bouake appeared to fear a return to full-blown war would bring bloodshed back to a city that bore the brunt of the first four weeks of fighting. Most expected a swift rebel advance.
"We are suffering here because this crisis is continuing. There is no money, students cannot go to school. We want the French to open the road so the rebels can do their duty and end our suffering," said student Hassan Abdul.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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