- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast The president of Ivory Coast promised yesterday to end hostilities and send home foreign mercenaries fighting with loyalist troops in the West African nation.
"We will abstain from all acts of war on all fronts," Laurent Gbagbo said after meeting with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. "We will immobilize our helicopters and keep our men in the positions they are holding, because in the end we want peace."
There was no immediate reaction from the rebel leaders, but fighting raged in the southwest, where a rebel commander said he had ordered his troops to press on to the strategic port of San Pedro.
Insurgents fighting to oust Mr. Gbagbo have repeatedly denounced the government's use of foreign mercenaries, who pilot Mi-24 helicopter gunships and have led ground attacks.
Mr. Gbagbo said the mercenaries, reported to include South Africans and Europeans, would leave today. "There will be absolutely no more mercenaries here," Mr. Gbagbo said.
Mr. Villepin, on a two-day visit to stem the violence, said France proposed peace talks in Paris on Jan. 15.
France wants Ivory Coast's leaders, the rebels, West African mediators and representatives from the United Nations and the African Union to take part, he said.
State television reported earlier that Mr. Gbagbo was in favor of such a meeting. Rebels have also agreed in principle to attend. Mr. Villepin planned to meet with the insurgents today.
More than 2,000 French troops have been sent to Ivory Coast to enforce an often-violated truce, and to protect French citizens and other foreign nationals.
The war started with a failed coup attempt Sept. 19. The rebels behind that uprising now hold the northern half of the country, and two new rebel factions are operating in the cocoa- and coffee-producing west. Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced.
Fighting, meanwhile, escalated on a new southwestern front in what was once one of West Africa's most stable and prosperous nations.
Rebel leader Sgt. Felix Doh said yesterday that he had ordered his troops "to rush to San Pedro" and then wait while he contacted French forces in the port city.
Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa, and much of the harvest is shipped through San Pedro.
Mr. Villepin's visit followed French criticism of a loyalist Mi-24 helicopter attack on a central fishing village. At least 12 persons were killed in the attack Tuesday.
The trip began on a sour note, when Mr. Villepin was hemmed in at Mr. Gbagbo's Abidjan residence by screaming protesters, angered by an unfounded rumor that the minister had come to demand the president's resignation.
The protesters calmed down after Mr. Gbagbo emerged hand in hand with Mr. Villepin.
France has played an increasingly key role in trying to end more than three months of war in its former colony. The first 28 officers of a 1,260-member West African force, due to work with the French, arrived in Abidjan yesterday.
The northern rebels agreed on a cease-fire with the government in October, but the western rebels have not signed a truce. All the insurgents want Mr. Gbagbo to resign, arguing in part that his government urges ethnic hatred.

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