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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ivory Coast Talks Fail, Rebel Areas Attacked

YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast -- The thud of heavy arms fire shook Ivory Coast's second city Monday as government troops fought to reclaim the rebel-held north after efforts to restore peace in the once-stable West African country collapsed.

The government had for days promised an all-out offensive against the rebels who seized half the country after a bloody coup attempt Sept. 19. The offensive against Bouake, north of the capital, began Sunday -- even as West African mediators struggled to save a proposed cease-fire.

The heavy gunfire sent residents of Bouake, a city of half a million, cowering in their homes or fleeing on foot.

State-run radio, meanwhile, broadcast appeals to "patriotic" Bouake residents to rise up against the rebels and barricade roads.

Presidential spokesman Toussaint Alain said the offensive was "aimed at liberating urban sites occupied by illegal fighters.

"They will continue until law is re-established over the entire national territory," he said in a statement. "At stake is the defense of the young Ivorian democracy and its institutions, imperfect as they are."

A French military official said Ivorian soldiers captured a school on Bouake's eastern edge, close to a French position, and the two sides appeared to be exchanging fire at a distance. France has a 1,000-strong force in Ivory Coast, its former colony, to protect and evacuate foreigners and provide logistical support to government forces.

France urged Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo to sign a truce with the rebels. Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said it was necessary "to get out of this crisis through dialogue and reconciliation."

Rebels said they repelled a loyalist attack on two fronts around Bouake and inflicted heavy losses on government troops. The claims could not be independently verified.

The rebels include a core group of 750 to 800 former soldiers, many dismissed from the army for suspected disloyalty. Their demands vary from reinstatement in the army to the establishment of a new government.

They have held Bouake and Korhogo since the start of the uprising, gathering support from northerners who complain the southern-based government treats them as second-class citizens. Northerners are predominantly Muslim and from different ethnic groups than the largely Christian southerners.

West African mediators had expected both sides to sign an unconditional cease-fire last week. But Gbagbo backtracked, telling the envoys Sunday that rebels must disarm first.

"The Ivorian authorities are not opposed to the principle of a cessation of hostilities," Alain, his spokesman, said in a telephone interview. "Simply, we demand that those who opened fire, that is the rebels, must lay down their arms before the signature of a cease-fire."

Mediators said Gbagbo told them he was under pressure from Ivorian people not to sign a cease-fire.

Neighboring Ghana said Monday it plans to evacuate its nationals from Ivory Coast. Ghanaian Foreign Minister Hackman Owusu Agyemang said the conflict might trigger a refugee crisis.