Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - The international community has been shaken by renewed violence in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), a West African nation that until several years ago was regarded as a haven of stability in a politically volatile region.
Over the past week, government forces have carried out air attacks against rebels in the north of the country, shattering an 18-month ceasefire agreement and triggering renewed fighting.
The strikes came after the New Forces rebel group, which controls half of the country, withdrew from a power-sharing government, accusing President Laurent Gbagbo of blocking political reforms that are meant to be carried out under French-brokered peace accords.
France, the former colonial ruler, has 4,000 peacekeepers in the country, while the United Nations has deployed another 6,000.
In a government air strike last Saturday, nine French soldiers and a U.S. aid worker were killed. French forces retaliated by destroying the country's small air force in its entirety.
Adding to the chaos, pro-government militia known as the Young Patriots looted buildings in the commercial capital, Abidjan, including the airport, where they sought out nationals of France and other Western countries whom they accuse of supporting the rebels.
The French are trying to evacuate more than 1,000 foreign nationals rescued from anti-Western rampages across Abidjan.
The 54-nation African Union sent South African President Thabo Mbeki as an envoy in a bid to restore calm.
The AU said it was concerned about a return to violence in a country located near two other nations still struggling to overcome the effects of years of brutality and armed conflict, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Washington also urged restraint on all sides, and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. was "deeply disturbed" that Ivorian political leaders had failed to put the welfare of their people above narrow political interests.
"Parties that continue to undermine the peace process and seek to resume the war will be held accountable," Boucher warned in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said the pro-government militias have been responsible for serious violations.
"The Ivorian government's failure to hold the militias accountable for these abuses has only strengthened the impunity of these groups in Abidjan and the rural areas," said the group's Africa director, Peter Takirambudde.
Human rights campaigners claim that tens of thousands of young Ivorians have been undergoing some form of military training in recent weeks.
Political instability in Cote d'Ivoire erupted on Christmas Day 1999, when the first military coup in the country's history overthrew the government of President Henri Konan Bedie.
Military junta leader Robert Guei held elections a year later and declared himself winner, despite losing by a big margin.
Mass protests forced Guei to step aside and the election runner-up, Gbagbo, took office. But another failed coup attempt in September 2002 effectively divided the country into two.
Cote d'Ivoire is the world's largest cocoa producer and until 1999 was considered an African success story.
Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone account together for more than 30,000 U.N. peacekeepers, more than half of the total deployed in hotspots around the world.
In contrast to Cote d'Ivoire, the situation in the other two countries has been looking more promising.
Last year, West African forces, with the help of U.S. troops, restored calm to Liberia, routing former President Charles Taylor, who was granted exile in Nigeria.
In 2002, a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, which was sponsored by Taylor, was crushed by West African armies backed in that instance by British forces.
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