- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

PARIS, Jan. 15 (UPI) — Ivorian factions gathered in Paris Wednesday for the start of a 9-day, closed-door meeting that some consider the last chance to avoid a full-fledged civil war in the west African nation.

Ivorian rebel and opposition leaders, government representatives, U.N. and West African officials, and top French politicians are to remain holed up in a soccer stadium 18 miles outside Paris, to hammer out a peace.

"Today we are at the crossroads," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said during an opening ceremony in Paris. "History hesitates, the Ivory Coast hesitates, but history calls on you, your people who are watching you call on you."

"The future of Ivory Coast," he added, "is in your hands."

The meeting comes as the Ivory Coast conflict enters its fourth month. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands displaced since a failed coup in September sparked a larger fight that has unearthed ethnic, religious as well as political divisions.

If all goes well, the talks are expected to end with a 2-day summit of

West African leaders in Paris on Jan. 25 and 26, which will be attended by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

But Wednesday's meeting began amid an atmosphere of uncertainty, underscored by the absence of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo.

In several recent interviews, Gbagbo said he was willing to listen to demands of rebel leaders who control roughly half of the country. In the latest interview, published by Le Monde newspaper, he said he was "waiting for their claims, to be able to reply."

But Gbagbo has so far refused to cede to key rebel demands, including holding legislative elections and stepping down as president.

Still, he has floated the possibility of granting amnesty to rebels who now occupy swaths of the country's North and West, though he said doing so would be "unjust."

The meeting is aimed to air — and settle — painful and unresolved grievances, including Ivoirite, a hazy and notion of nationalism. Ivoirite was used to disqualify popular opposition leader Alassane Ouattara from participating in the 2000 presidential elections, on the grounds he had a Burkina Faso passport.

Ouattara, who sought refuge in France last fall, is among those attending the Paris meeting.

The outcome of the Paris meeting will be a key test of French diplomacy in Africa, which has undergone a major sea change in recent years. Paris has tried to loosen once close political and military ties in recent years.

But the French government found itself reluctantly dragged into the Ivorian conflict. Some 2,500 French troops are now stationed in the Ivory Coast, and their mandate has widened from protecting French and foreign citizens to preventing the rebel march south.

But top players in the mediation Wednesday offered an upbeat forecast for the Paris meeting.

"We're here to keep working for a resolution to the crisis," Mohamed Chambas, executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States told United Press International. "This is not going to be a one-event activity. We'll keep searching for peace, because it's important for Cote D'Ivoire, important for West Africa — indeed all of Africa — that we find a negotiated solution to the crisis."

Asked what concessions his movement might make during the talks, western rebel representative Roger Banki noted the talks had not even begun.

"But we're full of hope," said Banki, whose MPIGO movement controls part of

western Ivory Coast. "We are optimistic and believe in the good will of all the parties."

"I think everyone has made the trip for some reason," said Gaspar Deli, another western rebel representative. "The Ivorian population is really suffering right now, and we realize that."

Nonetheless, Deli suggested his group was unwilling to give up territory it had captured to date.

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