FERKESSEDOUGOU, Ivory Coast, July 6 (Reuters) - "Love me", says the slogan above a red heart emblazoned on Kati Soro's T-shirt, "with a condom".
A foot soldier in a second battle raging alongside Ivory Coast's civil war, she is on the front line fighting AIDS.
Soro, 20, became a member of her local AIDS awareness association in the northern town of Ferkessedougou last year, "because the problem is getting worse".
Since Ivory Coast collapsed into war in 2002, young women trapped by poverty in the rebel-held north of the West African nation have become increasingly desperate to find cash.
Prostitution is one of their few options.
"There are lots of relations between girls in town and soldiers and it's worse than before," says Samuel Laoukoura, director of Ferkessedougou's Baptiste Hospital, where 67 percent of people tested so far this year were HIV positive.
"Ferkessedougou is a crossroads for people from ... Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. And with the crisis there's a real problem of means, so young girls go out looking for money, which often involves prostitution," he said.
Ivory Coast's HIV infection rate stood at about 13 percent of the population before the war. Although lower than some southern African nations, it was high by West African standards.
There are no hard figures on countrywide infection levels now, but anecdotal evidence and results from the few hospital patients who consent to be tested suggests they may have soared, while access to anti-AIDS drugs is limited.
These days, rebel soldiers, often flush with cash and high on drugs, find it easy to pick up girls who had never previously considered selling themselves.
During the first two years of the war, which erupted when rebels known now as New Forces tried to oust the president and seized the north, shops closed, making it hard to buy condoms.
"The town is full of girls who take money to go with a man," says Madeleine Soro, 25, whose friend died of AIDS last year.
"The rebels have more than one girl at a time, two or three. Lots of girls think the rebels are good-looking," she said.
Locals say even more women have started selling sex since the arrival of a 10,000-strong contingent of French and U.N. troops to prevent clashes between government and rebel forces in the former French colony.
"French soldiers pay well and lots of girls want to go with them," said Kati Soro.
"They think the men might take them back to their country when they leave. Girls can earn around 10,000 CFA francs ($18.50) but there are some who can get 60,000 CFA a night or more."
Condoms are available to the 4,000-strong French force, known as Licorne, or Unicorn. The 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers are given five condoms a week.
"Morally, relations with locals are not correct," said one French officer serving in a northwestern town. "The easiest way to avoid any kind of complication is to abstain."
But he admitted this did not always happen.
"I did hear something about a soldier who had a girlfriend but he dumped her," he said. "Afterwards, her sister came forward saying they had both been raped. They did it to discredit us."
Many government health workers fled the north at the beginning of the war to avoid being seen as rebel sympathisers.
The few doctors who stayed behind say they have been so inundated with work that the AIDS problem has grown unchecked.
"During the first two years of the crisis, we were so busy that there was no time to educate people about protection against AIDS," said Seguelo Soro, the only doctor left at the regional hospital in northwestern Odienne.
Soro later met the local rebel chief to warn him about AIDS and started showing awareness films in the town's cinema.
"Recently, I took a big risk. I put on a piece of theatre where the main characters were young rebels sleeping around and getting ill. I was worried it might go down badly with the New Forces here, but actually they liked seeing themselves."
Some health workers say the problem in the predominantly Muslim north is exacerbated by prejudice against condoms.
"If you're Muslim, you simply don't want to use a condom. It's forbidden. But for Muslims especially it's important to understand the risks because men can have two, three or four wives," says Momouni Ouattara, from charity Care International.
It is not necessarily easier for Christians. The state used to fund an AIDS programme at the well-equipped private Baptiste Hospital at Ferkessedougou, which drew patients from far away.
"Due to our Christian outlook we recommend abstinence rather than safe sex," said director Laoukoura. "This way of dealing with AIDS is different to the government's, and it withdrew our funding."
Despite the commitment to safe sex on her chest, even Kati Soro has fear in her heart. She and her boyfriend have slept with other people in the past.
"We don't always use a condom," she said. "We are thinking of going for an HIV test ... but we haven't set a date yet."
($1=539.9 Cfa Francs)
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