French pressure slows fight in Ivory Coast

Thursday, January 9, 2003

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Two holdout western rebel factions -- under pressure from France -- agreed Wednesday to suspend hostilities and attend peace talks in Paris in a bid to end nearly four months of war in Ivory Coast.

French Ambassador Gildas le Lidec secured the agreement in a meeting with the rebels after some of the deadliest fighting yet between the insurgents and French forces in the former French colony.

"We have accepted a cessation of hostilities in order to attend the meeting in Paris," said Sgt. Felix Doh, leader of one of the western factions.

The meeting among le Lidec and the holdout rebels was held in Duekoue near where 30 rebels were killed and nine French soldiers injured in gunbattles Monday.

The fighting erupted despite new pledges by the government and main northern rebel movement to respect a repeatedly violated cease-fire and attend the Paris peace summit starting Jan. 15. The two western rebel groups had never agreed to the cease-fire reached in October.

After the meeting, a western leader said insurgents were instructing their forces to hold their positions to await further talks with West African mediators on signing the October accord.

Defense Minister Gen. Assani Tidjani from nearby Togo was expected to meet with insurgents in Duekoue on Saturday, said Maj. Gaspard Deli, leader of the second rebel faction.

Deli also said the western insurgents were ready to participate in the Paris talks. "With France involved, I think the decisions that will be taken will be credible," he said.

France has more than 2,000 soldiers in Ivory Coast -- the world's largest cocoa producer and a regional economic powerhouse -- to protect foreigners and try to enforce the shaky cease-fire.

Hundreds have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in the war, which began in September with the northern rebels trying to oust President Laurent Gbagbo in a coup. They have since seized the northern half of the country.

The western rebel factions emerged in November and have been joined by Liberian fighters, notorious for their lack of discipline, extreme violence and drug use. Fleeing residents have accused the Liberians of raping, looting and killing civilians.

The western rebels have clashed several times with French troops, but until Monday, only one French soldier had been injured.

The French army said the battle broke out when rebels fired mortars at two French positions around Duekoue, and the French responded. Duekoue is a strategic town straddling main roads leading to the central town of Daloa and the southwestern port of San Pedro -- both in government hands.

Deli blamed "isolated elements" for the attacks and said rebel leaders had met with French forces in Duekoue on Tuesday to apologize. No clashes have been reported since.

Earlier Wednesday, Ivorian army spokesmen Lt. Col. Jules Yao Yao said his forces would also hold their positions and expressed hope the Paris talks would yield a peace settlement.

But he warned against possible attacks by the western rebels. He also repeated accusations that the rebel groups were linked, saying the northern faction could continue to wage war through its "satellite organizations" while taking part in the talks.

All the rebels want Gbagbo to resign, arguing in part that his government fans ethnic hatred. The government says Gbagbo will not step down and insists the insurgents disarm.

"If I resign, this country will enter into a civil war that will last more than 10 years," Gbagbo said in an interview Wednesday in the French newspaper Le Parisien. "I don't want that."

But he said he was willing to form a unity government and organize a referendum on key rebel demands, including questions of nationality, eligibility to run for office and land reform.

As the government and rebels talked peace, hundreds of frightened civilians fled war zones in the west Wednesday, fearing further rebel attacks.

"We've never heard the noise of gunfire before," said Frank Kouassi, who was headed to San Pedro in an overloaded truck after fleeing the rebel-claimed town of Neka. "So we were very afraid."

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