- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast Ivory Coast's three rebel groups yesterday put off a plan to join forces, saying they first needed to discipline their ranks, but they warned French peacekeepers in the West African country that there would be all-out war if they attacked insurgents' positions.
The main rebel Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement (MPCI), which occupied Ivory Coast's northern half after an army rebellion broke out Sept. 19, held talks with two newer groups the Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) and the Far West Ivory Coast People's Movement (MPIGO) in their central headquarters of Bouake.
The three groups issued a communique after the meeting, saying a proposed merger had been deferred as they needed "more discipline" before they fused.
It called upon all the groups to "respect human rights and international conventions on war; to assure the safety of all people and their belongings; and to eschew all acts of vendetta."
"These points are precursors to any merger," the joint statement said.
The discussions came after French peacekeepers on Saturday stopped MPIGO forces from advancing on the strategic town of Duekoue in western Ivory Coast and advancing deeper into the country's economically vital cocoa belt.
The MPIGO says it lost several men, but the French troops say the rebels fired on them first, sparking retaliatory action.
The rebel groups yesterday reiterated a warning to French troops, whose numbers in Ivory Coast will have swelled to 2,500 by the end of the month and whom they accuse of siding with the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.
"The MPIGO, the MPCI and the MJP declare that from this very day any French military attack against any of our positions will be considered an act of war," and lead to "a general attack on all fronts," the statement said.
It said French troops, who are increasingly getting embroiled in the Ivorian war, should be warned that any further "mismanagement" could trigger "widespread anti-French sentiment and serious and incalculable consequences."
The MPCI rebels, essentially made up of disgruntled soldiers, have won plaudits for being a highly disciplined force that does not loot or terrorize civilians.
The two western groups do not have such perfect records, and their forces reportedly comprise Liberian fighters who terrorize and pillage, according to witnesses in occupied western zones.
The rebels yesterday also reaffirmed their resolve to oust the "dictatorial and genocidal" regime of Mr. Gbagbo, a Christian whom they accuse of marginalizing the Muslims from northern Ivory Coast.
They also underlined their commitment to changing the constitution to delete all references to the divisive and potentially explosive concept of "Ivorianness" and to hold "fresh and transparent elections under the supervision of the international community."
The rebels' meeting came as Deputy U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Bertie Ramcharan arrived in Ivory Coast on a fact-finding mission.
The Ivorian conflict has been further complicated by the discovery of two mass graves thought to contain up to 200 corpses, which has drawn sweeping criticism and demands that the perpetrators be punished.

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