West African leaders hold urgent talks on Ivory Coast

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

KARA, Togo -- The leaders of five West African nations struggled Monday to stop Ivory Coast's slide into all-out war, jetting to Togo for an emergency summit and then racing to report back to Ivory Coast's embattled president, Laurent Gbagbo.

The diplomacy coincided with the appearance of new rebel factions in Ivory Coast and reports that France was sending 500 paratroopers to reinforce 1,000 French troops already there.

Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer, with a strategic port in Abidjan. Until its only coup in 1999, the former French colony was West Africa's most stable and prosperous nation.

The presidents of Togo, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia ended their emergency talks by calling for a second summit -- including all 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States -- to be held in Accra, Ghana, on Wednesday.

Nearly three months after rebels triggered Ivory Coast's descent into chaos with a failed coup attempt, West Africa's economic powerhouse is divided between rebel factions and the government, with French peacekeeping forces holding the middle. The rebels behind the coup attempt hold the North and new rebel factions have emerged in the West, near the border with Liberia.

Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade said the full summit meeting Wednesday leaders would discuss the new rebel factions and the deployment of more French troops with a broader mandate. The stronger rules of engagement would permit the French to shoot if obstructed or attacked, or if they see abuses committed.

After the Togo summit, Wade and the presidents of Nigeria, Liberia and Ghana flew to Abidjan and met President Gbagbo at the city's airport for more talks, a spokesman for the Ivorian presidency said.

West African leaders want to end a conflict that threatens to destabilize a fragile region scarred by decades of war in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The latest conflict is already taking its toll. With cocoa pods and cotton ready for harvesting on plantations across Ivory Coast, every day of stalemate creates more economic hardship.

Ivory Coast's northern neighbors cannot transport goods to the southern port of Abidjan. Civilians manning roadblocks across the country delay traffic and demand bribes in exchange for safe passage.

Rebels, including a core group of 800 recently dismissed soldiers, launched a failed coup attempt on Sept. 19. Driven from the economic hub of Abidjan, they seized much of the northern half of the country, basing themselves in the central city of Bouake and in northern Korhogo.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands have fled, seeking refuge from ethnic tensions sparked by the war, and privations caused by the country's division into rebel-- and government-held zones.

Rebels say they are fighting to protect the rights of predominantly Muslim northern Ivorians, who complain of discrimination and harassment by the Christian and animist southern tribes that traditionally have dominated the government

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