Ivory Coast rebels agree to respect cease-fire

Sunday, January 5, 2003

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Ivory Coast's main rebel movement Saturday agreed to Paris peace talks with the government after mediation by the French foreign minister in a French diplomatic push to end the crippling war in its former West African colony.

"We are anxious to spare the lives of our people," said rebel leader Guillaume Soro after a two-hour meeting with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Soro also promised his forces would respect a repeatedly violated cease-fire with government forces. "The Paris meeting is going to be the occasion to have everybody around the table," he said after the meeting at a French base outside the central rebel stronghold of Bouake. "We must face the situation, and we know that if we don't succeed, it's going to be a catastrophe in Ivory Coast."

Pledge to halt hostilities

The rebel promises came a day after de Villepin secured pledges from President Laurent Gbagbo to halt hostilities and evict foreign mercenaries fighting with loyalist troops. But despite the apparent easing in tensions, another rebel faction reported fighting Saturday on the country's volatile western front.

De Villepin said the weeklong summit in the French capital would start Jan. 15 with the government, rebels, political parties and West African mediators in attendance.

The Paris summit will be followed on Jan. 26 by a meeting of West African heads of state, which U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also expected to attend, he said.

De Villepin rushed to Ivory Coast on Friday after fighting exploded on a new front in the cocoa-rich southwest, and rebel anger rose following a government helicopter attack on a fishing village that killed 12 civilians.

France has more than 2,000 troops in Ivory Coast to enforce the shaky cease-fire and to protect French citizens and other foreigners.

The rebels had previously accused the crack soldiers of obstructing their advances and asked France to pull out. But De Villepin said the rebels now understood France's mission.

Soro's rebels launched the war Sept. 19 with a failed coup attempt and have since seized the northern half of the country.

They signed a cease-fire with the government in October, but peace talks in nearby Togo yielded few results and were suspended in December.

Two other rebel factions operate in the west of the country and have not agreed any truce. Their leaders were not present in Bouake -- despite an invitation to attend Saturday's talks -- but de Villepin said the northern insurgents would explain to the other factions the need to cease hostilities.

"They understand very clearly that they have to renounce any kind of offensive right now. It is time for a global cease-fire, and it is time for political negotiations," De Villepin said.

De Villepin met Gbagbo again before leaving Ivory Coast late Saturday.

"We have made progress," the president said. "If everyone has the willpower, by the end of the month, we should have something positive."

Earlier, however, a western rebel leader said fighting was continuing Saturday.

"Even as I speak to you, my men are fighting against mercenaries around Guiglo," Sgt. Felix Doh said. He said the foreign fighters included Liberians and Angolans, but it was not immediately possible to verify the claims.

Guiglo is 75 miles north of Neka, where fighting took place Friday after rebels claimed to have seized the village near the border with Liberia.

Doh's forces this week pushed 125 miles south, opening a new front in their drive toward the strategic port of San Pedro. Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa, and much of the rich harvest is shipped through San Pedro.

The western rebels have reportedly been joined by Liberian fighters -- notorious for drug use and extreme violence.

It was not immediately possible to reach the western rebels for comment on the cease-fire call.

Before the meeting with de Villepin, the northern rebels had dismissed Gbagbo's promise to cease hostilities as a lie. But they refrained from direct criticism in their statement Saturday.

"We at least are men of our word, men of honor, and we will do what we have said," Soro said.

An adviser to Gbagbo, Toussaint Alain, said the president would also respect his word. He accused the rebels of also using mercenaries.

The rebels want Gbagbo to resign, arguing in part that his government fans ethnic hatreds. The government says that is out of the question and insists the rebels disarm.

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