- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

PARIS, Jan. 24 (UPI) — Rebel leaders and government officials from Ivory Coast reached a reconciliation agreement Friday after weeklong talks outside Paris.

The agreement clears the way for a weekend summit in Paris of West African leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The meeting aims to draft a blueprint for lasting peace in Ivory Coast.

French President Jacques Chirac met Friday with Annan and was scheduled to meet Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo later. South African President Thabo Mbeki is also expected to join the summit.

"We're completely satisfied," with the agreement, said Guillaume Soro, head of the northern rebel Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement.

Under the deal between government officials and rebels, who control roughly half of the West African nation, Gbagbo would remain in power. But the two sides also agreed to form "national reconciliation government," including opposition and rebel representatives and to elect a prime minister by consensus.

The new government is expected to prepare for a new round of legislative elections — a key rebel demand.

A spokesman for the Gbagbo government dubbed the deal "a decisive advance toward peace," which has eluded Ivory Coast since a failed coup by former soldiers last September. The coup attempt unleashed a larger rebellion in the country's north and west that is considered the most serious crisis to hit Ivory Coast since independence.

The clashes have killed hundreds of people, produced thousands of refugees, and devastated a once thriving cocoa- and coffee-based economy.

Friday's agreement marks a diplomatic coup for France, a reluctant mediator in the simmering unrest in its former colony.

"We celebrate the signature of this agreement," a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said Friday. "Certainly it's an important step. We are in the framework of a process — that's the message of today."

If all goes well, the 2,500 French legionnaires now stationed in Ivory Coast will be slowly replaced by a West African peacekeeping force.

But clashes in the western part of the country this week, allegedly involving Liberian fighters as well as Ivorian rebels, may threaten the agreement.

The Ivorian government has called on Paris to activate a 1961 agreement, which calls on France to defend its former colony against outside aggressors. Gbagbo's government made a similar — and failed — pitch last fall, suggesting Burkina Faso was helping the rebels.

So far, however, the French government maintains the Ivorian unrest is an internal affair.

Analysts say France — which has gradually shed its once-interventionist France-Afrique policy — is reluctant to be dragged into what may be a protracted conflict.

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