Ivory Coast to expand rapid response forces

Abidjan - Ivory Coast plans to establish new centres for rapid response forces to protect soft targets throughout the country following an attack by Islamic extremists on a popular beach town earlier this month that killed 19, the country's prime minister said on Thursday.

The March 13 attack on Grand-Bassam, claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, was the first of its kind in Ivory Coast. The Unesco World Heritage site attracts hundreds of holidaymakers each weekend and is linked by highway to Abidjan, Ivory Coast's commercial hub, allowing for a swift response from special forces that officials credit with mitigating the death toll.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan said new centres for a special security unit would likely be set up in the northern city of Korhogo and in San Pedro, another beach destination in the southwest that is also home to Ivory Coast's second-largest port.

The highly-trained unit, the Co-ordination Centre of Operational Decisions, was created in 2013 and is composed of police, gendarmes and soldiers. It is based in Abidjan, but has some presence in Yamoussoukro, the capital, and Bouake, Ivory Coast's second-largest city.

Duncan said that without such a deployment locations far removed from Abidjan, the largest city, would remain vulnerable to extremist violence.

"If the attack had taken place in another region of Ivory Coast, in the west where there are beaches as well, how are you going to intervene rapidly?" he said. "Ivory Coast is a country that needs to be able to fight for itself."

Earlier this week, officials said 15 arrests had been made as part of an investigation of the Grand-Bassam attack. Prosecutor Richard Adou identified the suspected mastermind of the attack as Kounta Dallah, who remains at large. The government has distributed a photo of Dallah, but has not publicised his nationality, saying it wants to avoid reprisal violence.

The assault in Grand-Bassam was the third high-profile strike by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in West Africa in recent months, following a November attack on a hotel in Mali and a January attack on a popular café and hotel in Burkina Faso.

Top security officials from those three countries and Senegal met in Abidjan this week to discuss co-operation to defend the region against further extremist violence.

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