- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast Ivory Coast's main rebel movement yesterday agreed to Paris peace talks with the government after mediation by the French foreign minister in a diplomatic push to end the crippling war in France's former West African colony.
"We are anxious to spare the lives of our people," said rebel leader Guillaume Soro after a two-hour meeting with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Mr. Soro also promised his forces would respect a repeatedly violated cease-fire with government forces.
"The Paris meeting is going to be the occasion to have everybody around the table," Mr. Villepin said after the meeting at a French base outside the central rebel stronghold of Bouake. "We must face the situation, and we know that if we don't succeed, it's going to be a catastrophe in Ivory Coast."
The rebel promises came a day after Mr. Villepin secured pledges from President Laurent Gbagbo to halt hostilities and evict foreign mercenaries fighting with loyalist troops. But despite the apparent easing of tensions, another rebel faction reported fighting yesterday on the country's volatile western front.
Mr. Villepin said the weeklong summit in the French capital would start Jan. 15 with the government, rebels, political parties and West African mediators in attendance. Then, a meeting of West African heads of state, which U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also is expected to attend, will follow Jan. 26, the French foreign minister said.
He rushed to Ivory Coast on Friday after fighting exploded on a new front in the cocoa-rich southwest, and rebel anger rose after a government helicopter attack on a fishing village that killed 12 civilians.
His mission was to halt a conflict that has cost hundreds of lives and displaced tens of thousands across what was once one of West Africa's most stable and prosperous nations. France has more than 2,000 troops in Ivory Coast to enforce the shaky cease-fire and to protect French citizens and other foreigners.
Mr. Soro's rebels started the war Sept. 19 with a failed coup attempt and since have seized the northern half of the country. They signed a cease-fire with the government in October, but peace talks in nearby Togo yielded few results and were suspended in December.
Two other rebel factions operate in the west of the country and have not agreed to any truce. Despite an invitation, their leaders did not attend the meeting in Bouake yesterday.
Mr. Villepin met Mr. Gbagbo again before leaving Ivory Coast late yesterday. "We have made progress," the president said. "If everyone has the will power, by the end of the month, we should have something positive."
A western rebel leader said earlier, however, that fighting was continuing yesterday. Sgt. Felix Doh said his troops were fighting mercenaries from Liberia and Angola around Guiglo. His assertion could not be verified.
Guiglo is 75 miles north of Neka, where fighting occurred Friday after rebels said they to have seized the village near the border with Liberia. Sgt. Doh's forces this week pushed 125 miles south, opening a new front in their drive toward the strategic port of San Pedro.
Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa, and much of the rich harvest is shipped through San Pedro.

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