MAN, Ivory Coast, Feb 12 (Reuters) - On the dimly-lit dance floor of the Guety night club, the only disco still open in the rebel-held town of Man, young Ivorians sway to the rhythm of reggae music, seemingly oblivious to the misery of war.
A bunch of threatening-looking youths, some with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders, comes in. Suddenly the dance floor empties, frightened girls huddle against the wall. The fun is over.
"As you can see, the Liberians are still around," sighs the club's barman.
One of the young fighters, a red bandana tied round his head, asks brusquely for a Coca Cola, speaking in a pidgin English slurred by alcohol. He stares blankly at the barman, who is asking him to pay, then leaves.
"Well, we'll just put that on the tab," says the barman.
Outside the club, more drunken youths argue with a group of foreign reporters they suspect of having taken pictures of them. The Liberian fighters know they should not be here.
Before taking reporters to Man, Ivory Coast's rebels made sure their undisciplined and looting-prone Liberian allies had left town, aware of the damage that tales of terror at the hands of the Liberians were doing to their image.
"We've told them to leave, they're in the bush now," said Ben Souck, a spokesman for the western-based Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) which controls Man.
LIBERIANS BEST PLAYERS OF WAR
The Liberians, many of them teenagers and child soldiers high on alcohol and drugs, mastered the skills of bush war in their own country's bloody, seven-year civil war. They tipped the balance in favour of the Ivory Coast rebels in the west.
Ivory Coast's war broke out after a failed coup by the main rebel faction (MPCI) in September. Three rebel groups now hold the north and large parts of the west, while government forces control the south, including the commercial centre Abidjan.
The appearance of Liberians in the west has stoked fears that conflict in the world's biggest cocoa grower could descend into an anarchic free for all and destabilise a region already shaken by brutal wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Hundreds of Liberian fighters were instrumental in helping Ivory Coast's rebels retake the strategic coffee-growing centre of Man in December after they had briefly lost it to President Laurent Gbagbo's mercenary-backed loyalist troops.
But they brought with them a reputation for looting and brutality, tarnishing the image of discipline the Ivorian rebels had until then tried so hard to project.
"These people are just used to war, they grew up with it," said Souck of the MJP.
"For us, it was like playing a match of football and making sure we had the best players on the bench. When you are fighting a war, there are no better players than the Liberians."
"We did have some problems in the dressing room, but we'll call them back if need be," he said.
WEALTH IN CHAOS
Only three weeks ago pick-up trucks brimming with heavily armed, wig-wearing teenage fighters, could be seen roaming freely around Man. But the rebels have since made a marked difference by making almost all the Liberians leave town.
Residents have started venturing outside again after nightfall and say looting and harassment have diminished.
"It's quieter now. We can even sit outside in the courtyard at night without fear," said one man whose house was ransacked shortly after the rebels recaptured Man from loyalist forces.
Rebel commanders say many Liberians crossed the border and volunteered to avenge the death of former military ruler Robert Guei, who was killed by loyalist forces hours after a failed coup attempt on September 19.
Guei had strong ties with Liberia and his Yacouba ethnic group straddles Ivory Coast's western border with the pariah state, whose President Charles Taylor is under United Nations sanctions for fuelling regional instability.
Gaspard Deli, the MJP commander in Man, said only some of the Liberians fighting with the rebels obeyed the orders of their Ivorian commanders. Others, often in small gangs, simply saw in Ivory Coast's chaos the possibility of helping themselves to the country's relative wealth.
"Some of them infiltrated themselves because this is a beautiful, rich country. They don't really have a chief. They say they are their own chiefs," said Deli.
"We can't control them, so we are trying to see how we can make them leave."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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