PARIS France yesterday urged Ivory Coast’s government and rebel leaders to show courage and a sense of justice in restoring peace in the West African country as talks to end four months of conflict in the former French colony began here.
“We don’t have the right, you don’t have the right” to let the Ivorian people down, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said as he opened the negotiations, saying the West African country is at a crossroads.
“The hopes of the Ivorian people are in your hands,” Mr. de Villepin told a few dozen leaders from the rebel groups, the government, Ivory Coast’s main political parties, France and the United Nations who had gathered in Paris to open the talks.
The rest of the discussions expected to last 10 days are to take place in a national rugby training center in secluded woodland 20 miles south of the French capital.
About 100 supporters of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo welcomed arriving delegates, waving Ivorian flags and chanting: “We want Laurent Gbagbo. The people chose him.”
The talks were made possible by fragile truces agreed to by the Ivory Coast government and the three rebel groups that now control the north and west of the country.
The rebel insurgency, which began with a failed coup Sept. 19, has already claimed hundreds of lives, displaced nearly a million people and smashed the country’s reputation as a haven of West African prosperity.
“France, the host country, is here to give you its support,” said Mr. de Villepin, calling for solidarity and generosity among the delegates and reminding them of the international community’s support for the peace process.
France has deployed 2,500 troops in Ivory Coast to police the cease-fires which seemed to be holding yesterday and to prevent further havoc in the region.
The rebels have two principal demands: better opportunities for non-southerners and the exit of Mr. Gbagbo as president.
Mr. Gbagbo, who came to power in October 2000 on the wave of a popular uprising that forced out military ruler Robert Guei, has repeatedly refused to hold elections before their scheduled date in 2005.
The rebels in west Ivory Coast have said they want to avenge the killing of Gen. Guei on the first day of the uprising.
But Alassane Ouattara, a political rival of Mr. Gbagbo from the Muslim north who was barred from the 2000 elections because of a dispute about his nationality, said yesterday: “We must have elections as soon as possible.”
In this he has made common cause with the main rebel group, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast, which repeated on the eve of the Paris talks its demand for Mr. Gbagbo to stand down.
But Mr. Ouattara added that the main goal of the talks is to obtain “security guarantees.”
Mr. Ouattara sought refuge at the French ambassador’s home in Abidjan when the rebellion broke out. His home was ransacked and torched in the early days of the uprising, and he has since fled into exile.
Mr. Gbagbo was represented at the talks by his prime minister, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, but was due to go to Paris for a meeting with other African heads of state and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan if a peace deal for Ivory Coast can be worked out.
Mr. de Villepin said he was optimistic that an agreement could be reached, and he appealed to the delegations’ “courage and sense of justice” to bring peace back to Ivory Coast.
The French foreign minister specifically asked delegates to tackle the thorny question of defining Ivorian nationality and to make concessions to foreigners living in Ivory Coast.
“I’m optimistic because I believe in Ivory Coast; I believe in Africa,” he said.
France has tried to steer a middle course in the conflict, although clashes between its forces and rebels earned the former colonial power accusations of a pro-Gbagbo bias.
Mr. de Villepin traveled to the troubled country last month to meet Mr. Gbagbo and press him to take a conciliatory route.
Besides Mr. Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), the other main political parties attending the talks are Mr. Ouattara’s Rally of Republicans (RDR), the Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, and the Union for Democracy and Peace in Ivory Coast.
The Sept. 19 rebellion marked the bursting open of Ivory Coast’s long festering geographic and ethnic wounds. Since then, rebels have gained control of the cocoa-growing west and predominantly Muslim north of the country, with the Gbagbo government hunkered down in the south.
The insurgents have repeatedly said they are fighting for the rights of Ivory Coast’s Muslims and ethnic minorities, whom they say have been marginalized by the government. Mr. Gbagbo, a Christian from the south, has been accused of excluding anyone but southern Christians from his ruling circles.
He came to power in October 2000 amid a popular uprising that prevented Gen. Guei, the 1999 coup leader, from assuming the presidency after an election that month that Gen. Guei claimed to have won.
In an early clue to the simmering tension that was to boil over in the September 2002 rebellion, Mr. Gbagbo’s supporters, backed by the security forces, fought backers of opposition politician Mr. Ouattara, a Muslim from the north who had been excluded from the October 2000 election.
Mr. Ouattara, 61, earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in economics in Pennsylvania and was prime minister of Ivory Coast from 1990 to 1993. He served as deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund in Washington for five years and stepped down in 1999.
Muslims and other northerners claimed during the 2000 election that security forces in Abidjan had rounded them up and tortured them.
Ethnic demons had been on the loose since the death in 1993 of Ivory Coast’s first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, as his successors espoused the concept of “Ivorianness,” a homegrown concept of priority for Ivorians.
At the Paris talks that began yesterday, Mr. Gbagbo’s ruling FPI faces the uphill task of trying to win the support of the main political players notably Mr. Ouattara’s opposition RDR in the fight against the rebels.
Having served as prime minister under the late Mr. Houphouet-Boigny, Mr. Ouattara had been barred from the presidential election of 2000 on the claim that he was a citizen of neighboring Burkina Faso. The government and the courts recognized his Ivorian nationality last year.
Mr. Ouattara has backed rebel demands for new elections.
Mr. Gbagbo, who took a bellicose tone when the rebellion started, has become more flexible now, after the abysmal performance of his troops against the rebels and pressure from France and other countries.
The embattled leader last year drafted a peace plan, which included formation of a new, broad-based government and moves to stamp out any form of ethnic discrimination.
Before the uprising, about one-third of Ivory Coast’s population of 15.8 million were immigrants mostly migrant workers from West Africa.
Mr. Houphouet-Boigny, who ruled from 1960, when Ivory Coast gained independence from France, until his death in 1993, welcomed foreigners mainly West Africans and French citizens with open arms.
Their toil was largely responsible for turning the country into the world’s No. 1 cocoa producer.