Some describe them as mutinous soldiers hungry for power. Others call them champions of a marginalized sector of society. Still others say they are foreign mercenaries carrying out a plot by Ivory Coast's regional rivals to throw this West African country into chaos.
One month after a shadowy rebel force took up arms and attacked government forces in Ivory Coast's three largest cities, the origins of the insurgency and the men carrying it out are still the subject of more speculation than certainty. But whoever they are, today they control half of the country and are beginning talks with the Ivorian government under a tense and reportedly shaky truce.
Interviews with government officials, foreign diplomats and ordinary Ivorians in the southern port of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's largest city, indicate that one of the keys to resolving the conflict lies in determining who the rebels are and what they are trying to accomplish. But here in Bouake, the northern city that serves as their headquarters, the rebels have overcome earlier reticence and are taking pains to explain themselves.
"Who are we?" said Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, a former student leader who emerged last week as political head of the rebel Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast. "We are young Ivorians, and we are ready to fight and die."
Soro and others decribed their force as a mix of exiled soldiers and former students, all furious with what they called the mistreatment of northern Ivorians by the people of the more prosperous and powerful south -- particularly the government of President Laurent Gbagbo. Their leaders said they planned their mutiny for two years, coordinating from around the country and from abroad, with two goals in mind: driving Gbagbo out of office and bringing new elections.
"If you are from the north you are subhuman, according to the government," Soro said. "We want a united [Ivory Coast]. We want a country that lives in harmony and includes everyone. We want a pan-Africa where the Ivory Coast is a melting pot."
The rebels' assertions could not be independently confirmed, however, and government leaders and many outside observers are dismissive of them, contending instead that foreign countries are involved. Some accuse Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast's northern neighbor, which has roughly 3 million migrants living in Ivory Coast, of being behind the uprising. Others see the hand of President Charles Taylor of Liberia, who engineered rebellion in his own country and Sierra Leone, or that of Taylor's supporter, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
The governments of Liberia, Burkina Faso and Libya have denied such allegations. Soro said the rebel movement is entirely Ivorian but has "allies," whom he refused to identify.
The question of whether the rebels are Ivorians or foreigners reflects national and ethnic tensions that have simmered since the mid-'90s.
Once one of Africa's most prosperous and stable nations, Ivory Coast was a magnet for people of neighboring countries, who came here in huge numbers to work in the country's vast cocoa fields. As a result, about 30 percent of the country's 16 million people are immigrants.
But the death in 1993 of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who had ruled Ivory Coast since its independence from France in 1960, brought less tolerance and more tension, many Ivorians contend. Under President Henri Konan Bedie, the concept of ivorite -- essentially a belief in "true Ivorian blood" -- became popular. Migrants from Burkina Faso, as well as northern Ivorians who shared ethnic and religious ties with the Muslim Burkinabes, say they became victims of persecution by the largely Christian southern and central Ivorians in power.
A military coup led by Gen. Robert Guei toppled Bedie in 1999, and when Guei sought to prevent any viable rivals from opposing him in presidential elections the next year -- notably Alassane Ouattara, a former World Bank official and prime minister popular in the north -- many northerners in the military broke ranks with the general. Guei lost to Gbagbo in an election from which Ouattara was excluded because a court said he lost his Ivorian citizenship by using a diplomatic passport from Burkina Faso in the 1970s.
When the current rebellion flared on Sept. 19, suspicion immediately fell on Guei. But the former dictator and his family were killed on the first day of the uprising, and both the government and the rebels now say it was Guei's opponents in the military who participated in the rebellion.
According to Sgt. Cherif Ousmane, a rebel commander interviewed here in Bouake, those soldiers, some of whom have been living in exile in Europe and other neighboring countries, make up only one faction of the movement. The others include soldiers who were upset over Gbagbo's plans to discharge them from the army and civilians angry over the treatment of northerners and immigrants.
"We have created a movement," said Ousmane. "There should be no more Ivorians from the south, from the east, from the west. We want to find a solution to this. We want to go deep into this problem and solve it already."
Anderson Appiah, an adviser to Gbagbo, said that the soldiers angry with the government had little basis to be upset because they were hired by Guei and were warned that they would be demobilized at the end of the year. "The army has separated along political lines," Appiah said. "And now they have a political movement and have taken up violent means to solve it."
"One thing that is scary is that they all have deep feelings of conviction," said Joachim Beugre, a journalist and political analyst in Abidjan. "And they all have guns."
In Bouake, armed and aimless-looking rebel soldiers patrol empty neighborhoods from which 200,000 residents have fled on foot and by bus, according to aid agencies. The rebels have commandeered a small outdoor bar and set up a computer and a phone amid the burned-out vehicles that lie scattered about.
Sensitive to outside opinion, they have set up a Web site to publicize their cause and have invited Amnesty International to investigate accusations that they are arming children to fight for them.
Ousmane flatly dismissed the accusation. "We refuse to use children," he said. "If we see this happening, we stop it right away."
With the conflict still unsettled, the cease-fire remains in place, with French troops deployed between the two forces to deter a resumption of hostilities. Leaders from a handful of African nations met in Abidjan yesterday, called for immediate talks between the government and rebels and agreed on the urgent need for deployment of a West African force to replace the French troops, news services reported.
No date was set for the talks or the deployment of the West African troops.