- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

PARIS, Jan. 3 (UPI) — France's foreign minister on Friday invited government and rebel leaders from the Ivory Coast to Paris on Jan. 15 to hammer out a solution to a four-month civil war that has killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands of others.

Dominique de Villepin's announcement of the upcoming round-table meeting offered a bright spot to a rocky first day visiting the West African nation, where demonstrators briefly blocked him inside the residence of Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, hurling insults.

The foreign minister also secured Gbago's promise Friday to rid the country of foreign mercenaries. And the Ivorian president vowed to establish a "total" ceasefire in the Ivory Coast, although he offered no specific timetable to do so.

Earlier in the day, roughly 100 pro-government protesters, mostly women and children, chanted "De Villepin, terrorist, de Villepin assailant" — slurs usually aimed at rebel forces. Only when Gbagbo personally intervened did the crowd calm down, French television reported.

The Ivorian president denounced as "disinformation" rumors that the French envoy's visit was aimed to coerce him into stepping down from office — a key demand of rebels who control the northern part of the country, and swaths of territory elsewhere as well.

"France is on our side," Gbagbo told the protesters. "Dominique is here so we can find a solution to this dirty war between now and the end of January." Gbagbo then escorted de Villepin by foot to his guest house, next door to the presidential palace.

The hostile welcome offered to de Villepin is just the latest in a conflicting and often negative reaction to the Ivory Coast's former colonial power, since the conflict erupted last fall. Pro-government forces have both called for greater French intervention to help Gbagbo, and denounced Paris for ostensibly acting on behalf of the rebels.

For their part, various rebel contingencies have slammed French troops for

blocking their march south toward the country's commercial capital, Abidjan.

Paris has dispatched hundreds of troops to the Ivory Coast in recent months. But the estimated 2,500 soldiers now stationed have been tasked primarily to protect foreign residents, and to block rebel advances. In particular, the French government has balked at offering military personnel to help the Gbagbo government fight the rebels, arguing the Ivorian conflict is a purely internal problem.

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